During his campaign, candidate Donald Trump spoke out against the disturbing growth of government hostility to religion. Now President-elect Trump has assembled a transition team who can prepare a new administration with the potential to curb much of that hostility.
But on January 20, when President Trump concludes the oath of office with the words initiated by George Washington—“So help me, God”—and takes his hand off the Bible, what specific actions can he take to give Americans a new birth of religious freedom?
I believe there are five major areas for progress.
The new president can appoint federal judges who will uphold the Constitution and protect religious freedom. This starts with the U.S. Supreme Court, but stretches vastly beyond. He can immediately nominate a justice to replace Antonin Scalia with someone equally sensitive to the sanctity and value of religious freedom. But that will still leave the Court uncomfortably divided on religious liberty protections. Two justices with poor records on religious liberty, and one with a mixed record, are over 78 years of age. Should vacancies occur, it is essential that the Court add justices who will be guardians, not threats, to the rights of all people of faith.
This also applies to appointees to the 13 federal circuit courts of appeals, with a total of 179 judges, and the 94 federal district courts. President Obama’s appointees have tilted these courts decisively in a religious freedom-hostile direction. In 2009, only three of 13 circuits had a liberal majority; now nine of them do. As vacancies occur, that can begin to change and secure for people of faith the freedom guaranteed by the Constitution.
Second, legal advocacy.
President Trump can instruct the Department of Justice to advocate for religious freedom protection in court cases. They can file amicus briefs on the side of victims of religious discrimination. . Over the last 4 years, they have been hostile to religious freedom. Currently, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals is deciding whether opening government meetings with an invocation is constitutional. Federal district courts are considering the dismissals of the Atlanta Fire Chief as well as a Georgia health official because of their private religious expression. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether to hear First Liberty’s case of a U.S. Marine court-martialed for refusing to remove an inspirational scripture verse from her workstation. Briefs from the administration could help such victims get justice and set precedents to protect other Americans.
President Trump can immediately advance religious liberty by revoking President Obama’s executive orders that burdened people of faith. One such order forces federal contractors to choose between violating their religious beliefs and losing government contracts.
Then, he can propose or support pro-religious liberty legislative initiatives such as repealing the infamous Johnson Amendment which threatens churches with IRS sanctions; insisting on passage of the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) protecting freedom for Americans to dissent over matters such as marriage and sexuality without fear of punishment; and repealing Obamacare’s contraception and abortion mandates that could literally bankrupt faith-based organizations. Such actions would be effective in insulating religious adherents from government interference.
Our federal government desperately needs agency leadership who will develop and strengthen pro-religious freedom policies, and the Trump administration must appoint such leaders. What a tremendous win for religious freedom it would be to have tolerant leaders in the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, to say nothing of the departments of Labor and Education. And, of course, the military. Politically correct bureaucrats in federal agencies have been treating religious freedom as an afterthought at best, and trampling it underfoot at worst. This culture of intolerance has to stop, and that means a change in personnel.
Finally, the bully pulpit.
President Obama has paid lip service to “freedom of worship” while downplaying the Constitution’s words, “free exercise of religion”—and often equating faith with discrimination. In contrast, candidate Trump spoke out often in defense of religious liberty. President Trump can use the White House to educate Americans on their right to live out their faith in peace with all other citizens.
Our first president declared that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” of national greatness. Our 45th president can revive that vital affirmation through these five advances.
Kelly Shackelford is President, CEO & Chief Counsel of First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest legal organization solely dedicated to defending religious freedom for all Americans.
A version of this article was originally published in The Hill on Monday, November 21, 2016.