DHS and DOJ uphold religious freedom during COVID-19 crisis

Tony Perkins is President of Family Research Council. This article appeared in the Washington Times on May 1, 2020.

The COVID-19 crisis has taken a huge toll on all Americans, and not only in terms of physical health. The grieving families of those lost to the illness. The psychological toll of being housebound for weeks on end. The health care workers who daily are exposed to a life-threatening disease. The elderly who are prevented from seeing loved ones.

It’s at a time like this that America’s religious leaders are vital to the spiritual and emotional well-being of those in their care. Prayer and comfort, wise words and sound counsel are as much a part of care-giving as medicine.

So, it was welcome news when, on April 17, the Department of Homeland Security listed “clergy for essential support” as part of its “essential critical infrastructure workforce” guidelines. This will make it easier for pastors, priests, rabbis and other religious leaders to move about and minister to those in need. And it’s a profound statement from this administration about the importance of faith to America’s welfare.

Additionally, Attorney General William Barr recently issued a memo instructing the Department of Justice to ensure religious freedom is not jeopardized during the coronavirus crisis, writing “ … the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis.”

“Our Founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions,” President Trump said at last year’s first-ever United Nations conference on religious liberty. And he and his administration have acted on those words. 

Monday, May 4, is the three-year anniversary of Mr. Trump’s executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” that put in place a framework for reaffirming the centrality of religious freedom to our republic. Following after an administration that seemed bent on constricting the exercise of conscience rights, the order was not just refreshing. It was a great relief.

The Family Research Council has been tracking a number of this administration’s accomplishments on religious freedom. It’s a long list, as we’ve documented. Here are a few examples:

• Faith-based offices that recognize the importance of religious charities to a wide variety of public services have been created at various federal agencies due to the executive order.

• The Department of Health and Human Services has issued a number of rules concerning faith-based hospitals and caregivers with conscience objections to things like abortion or gender-transition surgery. The Trump administration recognizes that violating deeply-held convictions is not part of the Hippocratic Oath.

• After years during which Christian adoption agencies have been forced to choose between letting same-sex couples adopt sponsored children or lose their accreditations, HHS granted a waiver to South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Adoption agency to allow the ministry to provide little ones only to families that share its faith.

• The Justice Department filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court defending Colorado baker Jack Phillips’ right to decline using his artistic abilities to celebrate such things as same-sex weddings and transgender surgeries. Mr. Phillips, who continues to be a target of extremists who want to compel him to go against his religious beliefs, knows he now has some strong backing as he stands up to his attackers.

• This month, the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns that provides care for low-income senior citizens in 25 homes nationwide, will go before the Supreme Court for a third time to defend its right not to provide contraceptives to its employees. The Little Sisters refused to provide “preventive” pregnancy services that, under Obamacare, were defined as “all contraception methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration, including methods viewed by many as abortifacients, and sterilization procedures.”

In 2018, the Trump administration issued a new rule that protects “Americans who have a religious or moral objection to health insurance that covers contraception methods.” Yet the bizarre and cruel assault on the Little Sister keeps on going. But it needs to stop, and the president thinks so, too, which is why he has filed an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court defending the Little Sisters. 

Religious liberty has long been called America’s “first freedom.” It’s the first of the liberties listed in the Bill of Rights, but it’s “first” in a much deeper sense.

America’s Founders believed something that President Kennedy affirmed in his inaugural address, that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” If that’s true — and it is — then the state needs to honor and protect not just the right to believe what you want but the freedom to practice and act on those beliefs.

President Trump shares this conviction, which is why, during a recent FRC conference call with pastors from around the country, he said, “I want to thank you all for praying for our country and for those who are sick. You do such an incredible job. You’re very inspirational people, and I’m with you all the way.”

When it comes to defending what Alexander Hamilton called “the sacred rights of conscience,” faith-based leaders around the country are with you, too, Mr. President.