- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 19, 2017

Some social conservatives are growing impatient with President Trump’s modest stance on religious liberty one month into his term, saying the president so far has not kept his promise to protect the rights of evangelicals and Catholics who supported his campaign.

Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, called on Mr. Trump to “get moving on religious liberty.”

“The issue of religious liberty is one of the most important for people of faith, who happen to be the key voting [bloc] most responsible for electing Donald Trump as president,” Mr. Brown wrote in a letter to supporters last week. “Evangelicals voted over 80 percent for Mr. Trump, and Catholics went for him by 52 percent. Now it’s time for the administration to act to protect people of faith from being discriminated against because of their faith.”

The primary source of frustration for the religious right is Mr. Trump’s inaction on former President Obama’s executive order requiring some religious groups, including charities and relief organizations, not to discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity in order to receive federal contracts.

A draft of an executive order repealing that mandate circulated in the media and immediately drew the ire of the LGBT movement. Politico reported the repeal effort was squashed by the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, and her husband, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.

Joseph Backholm, president of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, said Mr. Trump’s own political instincts make him an unlikely champion of religious liberty in the face of a powerful gay rights movement.

“I think that it is true that he is not willing to take the LGBT movement head on,” Mr. Backholm said. “I would not characterize him philosophically as a conservative, particularly a social conservative on issues of sexuality and gender. That’s just not his DNA.

“He’s sympathetic to freedom in general,” Mr. Backholm said. “I think he’s a good representation of a lot of Americans who don’t want to have to choose.”

In an attempt to win over skeptical religious voters, Mr. Trump promised throughout the campaign to prioritize protecting religious liberty if elected.

“The first priority of my administration will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty,” Mr. Trump said in a speech before the Iowa Faith and Family Coalition. “The First Amendment guarantees our right to practice our faith as we see fit, not just during the holy days, but all the time, always, wherever.”

Mr. Backholm said there are some signs that Mr. Trump will keep his promise.

He said Mr. Trump has surrounded himself with champions of conscience rights, pointing to the appointment of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and nomination of federal appellate Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The president also is poised to sign legislation coming from a Republican-controlled Congress affirming the right to live by the tenets of one’s faith, such as the Conscience Protection Act of 2017.

“All of these are an indication that he is going to use the executive branch less to force people to do stuff than the last administration,” Mr. Backholm said. “So I think there’s reason for optimism.”

But there are signs on the state level that religious liberty is in retreat.

The Supreme Court of Washington state ruled last week that Barronelle Stutzman, the 72-year-old florist who owns Arlene’s Flowers, violated state anti-discrimination law by refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding ceremony.

And pro-choice advocates recently have tried to force religious entities to violate their conscience rights by providing abortions. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued Catholic hospitals that refuse to perform the procedure, and California and Illinois have passed laws forcing pro-life pregnancy centers to promote abortion.

The LGBT movement also has accelerated the debate over transgender rights, enlisting corporations to boycott states that regulate restrooms and locker rooms on the basis of biological sex.

Tim Chapman, chief operating officer of Heritage Action, said the left’s strategy is to wage “scorched earth political campaigns” at the state level, “where they can gang up on a single governor or a legislature.”

He said Mr. Trump could use his pulpit to “nationalize the public debate.”

“President Trump has the unique ability to do that, and at the same time send a signal to lawmakers in state capitals all across the country that he will stand with them,” Mr. Chapman said.

Sooner or later, Mr. Backholm said the president will be forced to take a side.

“It’s a choice that the left is forcing because they don’t want tolerance for perspectives and views they disagree with,” he said. “This is not a debate you can stay neutral on as president of the United States.”

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