President Donald Trump on Thursday celebrated National Day of Prayer by greatly expanding the role of faith-based organizations in the federal government and ordering federal agencies to work in partnership with religious institutions in implementing administration policy goals.
Flanked by religious leaders and members of his cabinet, Trump signed an executive order creating a “White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative” in a Rose Garden ceremony similar to one a year-ago where Trump unveiled a prior, more restrained, religious imposition executive order.
Trump expanded the role faith-based agencies play in the federal government in several important ways. First, his executive order creates a new office within the White House to oversee this religious expansion. That office will be staffed by an adviser to the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a new position. The adviser will be “supported by experts and various community and faith leaders from outside of the Federal Government,” according to the White House.
The initiative also directs all executive departments and agencies that do not currently have a faith-based office to designate a liaison from that agency to the White House.
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“Ordering every department of the federal government to work on faith based partnerships—not just those with faith offices—represents a widespread expansion of a program that has historically done very effective work and now can do even greater work,” said Johnnie Moore, a minister and public relations consultant who serves as an unofficial spokesman for a group of evangelicals that often advises Trump, in an interview with Religion News Service.
The White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative will, according to the White House, be focused on a range of activities including providing policy recommendations to the administration and will “apprise the Administration of any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law.”
The office will also engage in anti-poverty work.
While Trump is not the first president to create a faith-based office within the White House—both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama did as well—Trump’s initiative is by far the broadest in scope and builds off his earlier religious imposition orders and directives. In May 2017, Trump announced an executive order designed to help roll back the birth control benefit in the Affordable Care Act and lifted restrictions on churches and other religious institutions that forbade them from making political endorsements from the pulpit while maintaining their tax-exempt status.
Then in October 2017, the Department of Justice issued what the administration called “20 principles of religious liberty” designed to “guide the Administration’s litigation strategy and protect religious freedom.” The Justice Department followed up on its 20 principles of religious liberty in January 2018 with a “religious liberty” update to the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual.
That same month the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced major policy changes including the formation of a new Conscience and Religious Freedom Division dedicated to prosecuting what it believes to be violations of religious objection rights and promising to “more vigorously enforce” the more than 20 existing statutory conscience protections for health-care workers. Since its creation, the office has already targeted states like Hawaii to investigate claims made by attorneys representing fake pregnancy clinics alleging state officials are discriminating against their clients by requiring clinics to inform customers of the availability of comprehensive family planning services in the state.
To underscore the importance of Thursday’s announcement, Trump gathered federal agency heads and faith leaders to participate in the Rose Garden signing ceremony. Among those in attendance were Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen; Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Housing and Urban Development Sec. Ben Carson; Department of Labor Sec. Alex Acosta; Department of Homeland Security Sec. Kirstjen Nielsen; and HHS Sec. Alex Azar, among others.
A spokesperson for the White House told the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein that the new office will be less concerned about “where the church-state barriers are” and will be instead focused on fostering government-religious partnerships “without all of these arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate.”
Though the order didn’t directly address the administration’s anti-choice values, a fact-sheet on the new initiative did highlight Trump’s work to restrict access to reproductive health care.
Religious freedom “does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate,” said Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, in a statement. “The ACLU will be watching this initiative closely to ensure that it does not promote policies that violate these core principles.”