Trump Religious Freedom Order Helps Charities Serve Over 13.7 Million in Need, Analysis Finds

(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.

Over 13.7 million people have been provided with health care and other social services offered by faith-based organizations this past year thanks to President Donald Trump's signing of an executive order protecting religious liberty last year, a new analysis has found.

Marking the first anniversary of Trump's signing of an executive order promoting free speech and religious liberty on May 4, 2017, the social conservative advocate group Family Research council released a fact sheet detailing the impact that the order has made in its first year.

The report declares that the order, which was praised heavily be FRC and other social conservative groups at the time of its passing, "has had a tangible impact on the protection and priority of religious freedom throughout the executive branch over the past twelve months."

Prior to the order, Christian institutions, business owners, federal contractors and even military chaplains who operate with traditional Christian views on issues like marriage and abortion were fearful of how Obama-era regulations and liberal interpretation of discrimination law would impact their businesses or careers.

According to the analysis compiled by the the director of FRC's Center for Religious Liberty, Travis Weber, the order in unison with ensuing federal policy changes has protected the rights of dozens on faith-based schools and hundreds of faith-based organizations and nonprofits.

The executive order called for all executive agencies to respect and protect to the greatest extent possible under current law the freedom of organizations and individuals to engage in religious speech.

The order also instructed the Department of Justice to issue a broad guidance on how federal agencies can best protect religious freedom. Following through on the order, the DOJ guidance was issued last October by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Trump's executive order order also instructed the Department of Health and Human Services to consider how to best "address conscience-based objections" to the controversial HHS Obamacare contraception and birth control mandate. The mandate required many faith-based employers to provide health care plans to their employees that might violate their religious beliefs or face unsustainable fines.

Last October, the Trump administration expanded exemptions to the HHS mandate to protect faith-based nonprofits and also faith-based for-profit companies as well.

"Many organizations are now covered by the exemption and will remain free to serve," Weber wrote in the analysis. "At a minimum, this includes the 354 organizations and individuals affiliated with them who have challenged the mandate in court."

Weber reports that among the 354 organizations that benefit from the new HHS rule are at least 44 schools that can continue to provide an education for over 148,000 students without fear of crippling HHS fines forcing them to shut down.

Others who benefit from the mandate exemption expansion are "numerous public service organizations" that are part of umbrella groups that ensure that about 13.7 million people receive health care and other social services, Weber writes.

Among those umbrella groups is Catholic Charities USA, which through its subsidiaries served over 8.7 million people in 2014.

"Recently, in a one-year period, [Catholic Charities] collectively admitted over 5 million patients, and employed over 600,000 people," Weber stated. "Add these 5 million patients to the 8.7 million served by Catholic Charities, and that is the number aided by the executive order and subsequent HHS exemption even when considering only several large umbrella groups operating within a one-year timeframe."

Weber asserts that if the new HHS rule had not been issued last October, "millions of people would be in greater jeopardy."

Arguably the most well-known legal challenger to the HHS rule is the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that serves over 13,000 elderly poor people throughout 31 countries.

"While not all local religious providers and chapters joined the litigation against the mandate, all who want to exercise their beliefs would be put in greater jeopardy absent the new HHS rule," Weber stressed. "Moreover, because these numbers are drawn from only a few specific groups, they conservatively estimate the number of people who would be affected if other organizations — who would act on the freedom provided by the new HHS rule but have never expressed their view publicly — were to shut down."

In addition to the HSS rule, last May's executive order also helped to protect the rights of Air Force Colonel Leland Bohannon, who faced punishment last year after he refused to sign a certificate of appreciation for a same-sex spouse of a retiring serviceman.

Although Bohannon ensured that the document was signed by a higher-ranking officer, he was eventually suspended for his unwillingness to sign his name to the document. 

However, Bohannon's suspension was reversed earlier this year by the Air Force Review Boards Agency, which cited the May 4 executive order and the subsequent DOJ guidance in its decision in Bohannon's case.

Since the issuing of Trump's religious freedom order, the Department of Justice has also submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of Christian Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who faces punishment from the state because of his refusal to make a cake in celebration of a same-sex wedding.

Phillips' case comes as other Christian wedding vendors over the last several years have faced hefty fines and punishments for their refusals to work same-sex weddings.

"The DOJ's message to courts that it favors protecting the religious freedom of people in the position of Jack Phillips shows that the executive branch is prioritizing the First Amendment and religious liberty," Weber assured.

While Trump's May 4, 2017 executive order was praised by some conservatives, it was also criticized by other conservatives who felt like the order was merely a "nothing burger" of a symbolic gesture, or that the order left Trump's specific campaign promises unfulfilled.  

One of the main elements of the order was that it purported to take the teeth out of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 regulation that puts the tax-exempt statuses of churches and nonprofits at risk if they engage in politicking and endorsing candidates. 

Although Trump vowed to eliminate the Johnson Amendment during the 2016 election, the executive branch does not have the power to eliminate a rule passed by Congress.Trump's executive order merely orders the IRS to relax its enforcement of the Johnson Amendment and that can be undone should a new president take office and decide to reverse course. 

The same can be said for the Trump administration's actions pertaining to the HHS mandate and the DOJ guidance. 

Critics were also worried that the order was too robust and did not provide specific courses of relief to certain religious freedom issues facing various federal agencies.

However, proponents of the order argued that while it may not have been as specific as some would have liked, it is basically Trump's way of telling federal agencies what the new expectations are when it comes to religious freedom issues. Proponents stated that the order demonstrated good intentions and would lead to more specific administrative actions over time. Such actions included the expansion of the HHS exemption and the issuing of the DOJ religious freedom guidance.  

Last Thursday on the National Day of Prayer, Trump signed a new executive order "to ensure that the faith-based and community organizations that form the bedrock of our society have strong advocates in the White House and throughout the Federal Government."

The order effectively created a new White House office called the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The initiative will be led by whoever is appointed to fill the new position of advisor to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.

"Unlike past offices, Trump's emphasis is giving faith groups a stronger voice on areas like poverty, religious liberty, education, family, prisoner reform, mental health, and human trafficking," FRC President Tony Perkins said in a statement. "This White House wants religious groups and organizations to have 'strong advocates' across the federal government — which is a radical departure from the presidents of the past."

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