Justice Dept. Actions Contradict Trump's Promises on Religious Freedom, Legal Activist Says

(PHOTO: REUTERS/CARLOS BARRIA)U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to sign the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., on May 4, 2017.

A conservative religious freedom law firm that represented the Little Sisters of the Poor before the U.S. Supreme Court has expressed concerns that the promises President Donald Trump made to protect religious liberty by issuing his executive order in May have yet to be implemented by his administration.

Montse Alvarado, the executive director of the nonprofit religious freedom advocacy group the Becket Fund, told The Christian Post on Friday that the Department of Justice has seemingly contradicted Trump's remarks at the White House Rose Garden on May 4 when he praised Catholic nuns from Little Sisters of the Poor for battling a controversial Obamacare contraceptive healthcare mandate all the way to the Supreme Court and stated that their ordeal would soon be over.

Although Trump's executive order, among other things, called on the Department of Health and Human Services to consider amending policy to provide religious organizations an exemption from the contraceptive mandate, Alvarado said she is dismayed that Trump's Justice Department is still defending that same mandate in a federal court case brought on by the Catholic Benefits Association.

"It's been three months since the wonderful promises that we heard in the Rose Garden and we have yet to see any official action," Alvarado said. "Even though they are negotiating with us [as mandated by the Supreme Court], if they are still defending the mandate in their other cases, it's kind of hard to draw conclusions on what's going to happen with [the Little Sisters] case."

Even though the Supreme Court vacated lower court rulings against the Little Sisters and remanded their case back to the lower courts, the CBA, which represents over 880 Catholic employers and 5,000 parishes, won an injunction in the U.S. 10th Circuit Court in 2014. However, the agency appealed that ruling and the case is still pending after three years.

On Aug. 16, CBA CEO Doug Wilson sent a letter to Trump, which was shared with CP, to voice his displeasure with the fact that the DOJ filed a motion on July 31 to oppose a CBA request filed earlier in July for the court to make permanent the 2014 injunction against the mandate and end the case once and for all.

The Justice Department's July 31 motion asked the court to delay the case again in order to give the department more time to come up with a new regulation addressing the religious freedom concerns.

Wilson explained in his letter to Trump that while the case still remains open, CBA's members will continue to be potentially liable to pay upwards of $6 million in fines.

"The Justice Department's defense of the mandate in the CBA comes with surprising consequences to delaying the permanent relief for these groups and organizations," Alvarado said.

"I don't know how the president can be more clear about what he would like to see happen. So, it is his Department of Justice that is kind of defending policies that he stated very clearly he wants gone," Alvarado added. "It's been seven months since we elected the president that supposedly was going to make all this go away. He even campaigned on the issue."

According to the Catholic News Agency, the Justice Department is still in the the process of drafting a final rule to address the concerns that religious organizations have with the contraceptive healthcare mandate. The department asked the court for a delay in the CBA case until drafting of the regulation is finished.

"As we explained in our status report of July 14, the new Administration has initiated the rulemaking process to amend the regulations at issue here," the Justice Department said. "That process has not, however, reached conclusion. This court has properly maintained abeyances in related cases while the rulemaking process proceeds, and it should do the same here."

Considering that a draft federal rule to protect religious organization was leaked in May, Alvarado wonders why it's taking so long to enact such a rule.

"Those two words — leaked and draft — are too far removed for me to be comfortable," she said. "It was pretty good so it's not like they don't have the work done."

"The DOJ is delaying and at this point, justice delayed truly is justice denied for a couple of people," she insisted.

Alvarado pointed to the case of Real Alternatives Inc., a non-religious pro-life pregnancy center with a moral objection to the mandate. In August, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Real Alternatives in their lawsuit against the mandate. The court ruled that the mandate didn't place a substantial burden on the organization's religious beliefs.

"The DOJ enforced the mandate on them. You can imagine a group like the March for Life or the Susan B. Anthony List, there is not a doubt in my mind that those pro-life groups — even though they don't have a religious objection — are morally opposed to contraceptives and abortifacients," Alvarado contended. "Nobody doubts that. Yet, they were told by the court and defended by DOJ that they have to participate in the mandate. So, that is Delaware, Pennsylvania and [New Jersey] that now have this precedent in their court system that is now going to take years to overturn unless the mandate goes way."

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