Executive Order or Not . . . Freedom’s Future Is Still Up for Grabs

The current administration offers an opportunity, not a guarantee, for religious freedom

It’s been nearly three weeks since the inauguration festivities. In that short span, we’ve witnessed a flurry of executive orders, a wave of protests (both peaceful and otherwise), and a strange Twitter beef between the commander in chief and the Terminator.

And through this fog of activity, three certainties have emerged:

  1. Donald Trump is President.
  2. Very few liberals will actually leave the country.
  3. Freedom’s future remains up for grabs.

Some continue to deny the first reality, and some continue to hope for an unexpected surge of the second. As to the third, the installation of one individual in one office, no matter the individual and no matter the office, will never secure this nation’s commitment to religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.

Yes, it is rumored that President Trump may follow through in some form or fashion with his promise to give attention to the “critical issue of religious freedom,” by signing an executive order that directs federal agencies to respect federal statutes and Supreme Court decisions that protect the free exercise of religion. He has also demonstrated an early willingness for his administration to be “advocates for the unborn and their mothers,” by signing an order blocking foreign aid or federal funding for NGOs that provide or promote abortion.

But no president can unwind years of a federal bureaucracy’s overreach in a day. No president can — nor should be able to — control the actions of state and local governments. And no president can alone set freedom’s future on a proper course by eliminating restrictive speech codes and hostility toward faith and conscience found on university campuses.

For those who read these words and dismiss me as the proverbial wet blanket, party pooper, or stick in the mud, you misunderstand. What the Trump administration provides is an opportunity on many levels. What it does not provide is the total fulfillment of that opportunity.

Untangling a system of government overreach, and its effects

During the past eight years, the Obama administration furthered pre-existing policies — and enacted new measures — that burden people of faith, disregard the intrinsic value of life, and weaken the family. As just two examples, consider the current state of both Planned Parenthood and Title IX.

Despite documented instances of waste, abuse, and potential fraud, Planned Parenthood continues to receive millions from the federal government and various states. There is reason for hope that Congress and the Trump administration may work together to end the government’s longstanding practice of providing funding to the nation’s most profitable abortionist. Any such efforts, however, are sure to be met with intense resistance. Moreover, if President Trump puts an end to federal funding — and until he does, continued advocacy is of vital importance — the battleground will shift to funding at the state level, where even greater resources and strategic coordination may be necessary to succeed. Not surprisingly, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards has gone on record saying that the abortion giant “will never back down and … will never stop fighting.”

Meanwhile, President Obama’s Justice Department, in partnership with the Department of Education, sought to force schools across the country to accept an unlawful attempt to rewrite Title IX. By unilaterally declaring a ban on “sex discrimination” to include “gender identity,” the DOJ fabricated a requirement that schools make locker rooms, showers, restrooms, and other private spaces open to members of the opposite sex. The feds threatened schools that resisted this dangerous invasion of student privacy with the loss of millions in federal funding.

In the short term, those who value the privacy and safety of all students must encourage the administration to act.

The resulting chaos was widespread. In Illinois and Minnesota, dozens of students and families have filed lawsuits against their school districts and the U.S. Department of Education, after districts in those states responded to the DOE’s threats by opening their locker rooms and bathrooms to the opposite sex. In Virginia, the American Civil Liberties Union sued a school board that had the audacity to maintain separate restrooms for members of each sex while sensibly and compassionately offering individual, private facilities for students uncomfortable with using a facility that corresponds to their sex. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear that case, G.G. v. Gloucester County School Board, this spring.

In the short term, those who value the privacy and safety of all students must encourage the administration to act. In the long term, even if President Trump instructs the DOE to rescind its unlawful efforts to rewrite Title IX, it is unclear whether districts that initially caved to pressure from the DOE will reverse their policies. And, as with Planned Parenthood, the debate will likely shift to state legislatures (as well as local school boards), where much more work will be necessary to protect the privacy and safety of students.

The Trump administration alone cannot unwind the actions of a bloated bureaucracy and its effects. If you wonder why, consider a personal example from my own life:

If you hand a five-pound bag of beans to a 4-year-old and leave the room for 10 minutes… the ensuing mess will take some time to clean up, even if you take back the bag when you return.

States still have some power after all

In the area of freedom of conscience, there is little — if anything — President Trump can do to change what is happening to expressive business owners at the state and local level.

Indeed, creative professionals who face fines, jail time, and/or the loss of their businesses for seeking to live and work peacefully in accordance with their faith face those things because of a state or local law. Consider the following examples:

Barronelle Stutzman is a 72-year-old grandmother and florist who stands to lose her business, life savings, and home, because a Washington law demanded that she participate in the celebration of a long-time friend and customer’s same-sex wedding by designing custom floral arrangements for it.

Blaine Adamson, the managing owner of Hands On Originals, a promotional printing company, was accused of violating a local ordinance when he declined to print a particular message on a T-shirt because the message conflicted with his faith.

Consider also the stories of Breanna Koski and Joanna Duka, Carl and Angel Larsen, Jack Phillips, and Lori Smith, creative professionals who don’t want to be forced to choose between their conscience and their livelihood.

This encroachment on freedom of conscience is not limited to individuals and business owners. Recently, churches in Massachusetts and Iowa were forced to sue after government officials used state law to challenge the freedom of churches to operate in accordance with their beliefs, and sought to force churches to open their restrooms and showers to members of the opposite sex.

Even religious nonprofits find themselves caught in the crosshairs. This spring, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley. The case deals with a religious preschool and its playground, which government officials rejected from a state grant program that makes playgrounds safer with the aid of old tire scraps. While the facts may seem less than extraordinary, Trinity Lutheran is already being hailed as “a pivotal church-state separation case.” Its outcome could determine whether the government can exclude religious nonprofits from state-created benefits solely because they are religious.

All these stories demonstrate that regardless of who resides on Pennsylvania Avenue, there are still some policies that are set on Main Street.

All these stories demonstrate that regardless of who resides on Pennsylvania Avenue, there are still some policies that are set on Main Street. Local human rights commissions, local and state lawmakers, and other state politicians and judges have the ability to impact religious freedom in ways over which the Trump administration has little to no authority. There is no boardroom into which the master of The Apprentice can march these public servants and rectify their misdeeds with a punchy “you’re fired.” Their responsibility to the people must be mastered by the people; it is a role the people must not abdicate.

Seeking freedom within the marketplace of ideas

Regardless of who holds the nation’s highest office, our institutions of higher learning continue to control the nation’s future. And increasingly, colleges and universities are training our future leaders to demonstrate hostility toward ideas and beliefs that run counter to the prevailing orthodoxy.

In Georgia, a public college censored a student for speaking about his Christian faith on campus. Incredibly, school officials determined that the student’s speech violated policies that outlaw any expression “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s).”

At Kellogg Community College in Michigan, campus security arrested three people handing out copies of the U.S. Constitution while talking with students on a sidewalk.

And at California State University–Los Angeles, school officials recently attempted to shut down an event on diversity featuring conservative commentator Ben Shapiro because it was not sufficiently “inclusive.” When protestors — including and incited by faculty members — linked arm-in-arm to bar entrance to the speech (ironically titled “When Diversity Becomes a Problem”), the university president ordered campus police not to interfere.

This commitment to silence the expression of opposing viewpoints is not an isolated problem; it is an epidemic. Without a concerted effort to transform universities into institutions that once again function as the marketplace of ideas, any present gains for religious freedom and freedom of conscience may be short-lived.

Freedom’s future is decided in the present

The ACLU has pledged to respond to this administration by unleashing the “full firepower” of its “litigators and activists in every state, thousands of volunteers, and millions of card-carrying supporters.”

Supporters of freedom, life, and family must be similarly motivated.

We do ourselves a monumental disservice if we squander this opportunity. In the words of President Trump, “Now is the time for action.” If not now…when?