Religious liberty report card: The Trump administration's first year

Travis Weber is Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at Family Research Council. This article appeared in The Hill on January 12, 2018.

Now is as good a time as any to reflect on the Trump administration’s domestic religious liberty record over the past year—highlighting its accomplishments and observing what still needs to be done.

There have been a number of policy developments to celebrate, including the president’s religious liberty executive order, the Justice Department religious liberty guidance, the HHS contraception mandate exemption, and the USDA religious liberty guidance clarifying religious liberty protections for those like family business owner Donald Vander Boon — not to mention the confirmation of originalist judges who will respect current religious freedom law. At the same time, other agencies like the Defense Department still have to step up to the plate, follow the lead of HHS and the USDA, and do more to protect religious liberty.

Indeed, a decorated Air Force colonel named Leland Bohannon — who the Air Force has entrusted with oversight of nuclear weapons and the responsibility of flying B-2 stealth bombers — may have his entire career railroaded because the Air Force refused to grant him a religious exemption from being forced to sign a “certificate of spouse appreciation” for a subordinate in a same-sex marriage. While there are others, Bohannon’s case alone shows why religious liberty needs more protection in the Defense Department.

It’s not like Bohannon didn’t ask for help. He was told to request a religious accommodation, but it was returned to him without an answer. Thankfully, in the meantime a major general offered to sign the certificate instead. All seemed to have been peaceably worked out. Yet when the subordinate saw that

Bohannon’s signature was not on his certificate, he filed an Equal Opportunity (EO) complaint, which resulted in Bohannon being found to have violated Air Force regulations and “unlawfully discriminated . . . based on sexual orientation.” The EO investigator recognized that Bohannon had asked for an accommodation, but nonsensically claimed that “even had the accommodation been granted,” he “would nonetheless be guilty of unlawful discrimination.” As a result, Bohannon was suspended from command and flagged against promotion, in effect ending his career.

Not only is this entire matter an absurd waste of time, it is clearly unlawful and unconstitutional. The EO investigator’s train wreck of an analysis aside, religious freedom law and military policy demand that Bohannon be granted an accommodation in an instance like this — where the desired government objective — a signature on the certificate — is easily satisfied by someone else with nothing more than the stroke of a pen.

This sad sequence of events — resulting in the tarnishing of an honorable officer’s career — didn’t have to transpire this way. Over the course of last year, another agency under the Trump administration took a different approach. After Donald Vander Boon was threatened by USDA inspectors who said they would shut down his Michigan meat packing facility (which would displace his 45 employees) if he didn’t remove material supporting natural marriage from his breakroom table, the USDA responded and issued religious freedom guidance clarifying that he was protected.

Also near the end of last year, HHS issued rules that will protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious organizations that have been needlessly harassed for years under the Obama administration for their desire to honor their consciences and not be forced to supply abortion-causing drugs and services. The issuance of these rules helps resolve the legal troubles of scores of such organizations, businesses, and universities.

The HHS rules and USDA guidance followed on the heels of President Trump's religious liberty executive order issued last May — to which follow-on guidance was issued by the Justice Department — stating that all agencies must protect religious liberty. HHS and the USDA have heeded this instruction; the Defense Department (and Air Force) apparently have not.

While a religious exemption from signing a spouse appreciation certificate may seem like a small deal to some, it’s not for Bohannon. This whole episode is at a minimum a distraction. At worst, it could end his career.

The Trump administration so far has taken concrete steps to ensure people are free to live out their beliefs free from government coercion. It should continue to walk down this welcome path, as religious freedom protections are still needed for others — such as healthcare workers being forced to participate in abortions against their conscience, or subscribe to treatments which deny the biological reality of male and female.

Moving into 2018, the Trump administration can continue to fulfill its pledge to protect religious freedom by granting relief to Bohannon and revising Air Force religious freedom policy to ensure that what befell him does not happen to anyone else. This would earn it not only the appreciation of the religious freedom community today, but also the gratitude of many who want to see a strong and healthy military going forward.