Are Donald Trump and Republicans Getting Serious About Religious Liberty?

Donald Trump (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)
Donald Trump (photo credit: Gage Skidmore)

Since beginning his 2016 presidential run last year, Donald Trump has not always appeared to have the strongest grasp on the issue of religious liberty. However, if his recent actions are any indication, that may be quickly changing.

Most noteworthy was a statement Trump released last week vowing to defend religious freedom as president and, particularly, to sign the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA), backing up a pledge he made last December in a letter to the American Principles Project:

Religious liberty is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is our first liberty and provides the most important protection in that it protects our right of conscience. Activist judges and executive orders issued by Presidents who have no regard for the Constitution have put these protections in jeopardy. If I am elected president and Congress passes the First Amendment Defense Act, I will sign it to protect the deeply held religious beliefs of Catholics and the beliefs of Americans of all faiths. The Little Sisters of the Poor, or any religious order for that matter, will always have their religious liberty protected on my watch and will not have to face bullying from the government because of their religious beliefs.

These promises will no doubt be seen as a welcome development to conservative Christians unsure about Trump, and his recent comments have even won him grudging approval from one of his most ardent conservative opponents, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), FADA’s prime Senate sponsor:

Lee told National Review Online that Trump would be likely to protect religious freedom more effectively than Hillary Clinton would. Speaking of Clinton’s August op-ed in Utah’s Deseret News, Lee said: “The fact that [Clinton] uses that phrase, ‘the right to worship’ . . . You know, I’m not certain what she meant by it, but sometimes when people use that term instead of referring to religious liberty or religious freedom, they’re referring to something narrower. That makes me nervous.”

The Utah senator’s comment references a common misrepresentation of religious freedom, and one that Clinton has frequently advocated: the idea that religious liberty is merely the right to worship at church or at home and not the right to live out one’s faith in the public square. “Given that [Clinton] has said some things like that, and Donald Trump hasn’t, it seems he might be better on religious freedom,” Lee added.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) has picked up on Trump’s call to repeal the Johnson Amendment, introducing a bill this week which would allow religious leaders to express their political views free from fear of government persecution:

As thousands of pastors across the nation get ready to partake in the annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” on Oct. 2, Scalise and Rep. Jody Hice, R- Ga., introduced the “Free Speech Fairness Act,” which would eliminate the longstanding threat of churches and nonprofit organizations being stripped of their tax-exempt statuses or fined if they speak publicly about public policy or endorse candidates for public office.

The bill, also known as H.R. 6195, comes as Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has drawn the appeal of social conservatives and evangelicals by vowing to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which was passed in 1954 and has allowed the IRS to intimidate and censor churches and other nonprofit organizations.

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According to a fact sheet provided by Scalise’s office, the bill would ensure that ministers and other religious leaders can legally make comments about a political candidate or political issue as part of his or her sermon without having to fear IRS ramifications. The bill would also allow for churches and charities to include comments on political issues or candidates in their newsletters but would not allow for them to establish a new direct mail campaign to distribute political information.

For voters concerned about the erosion of religious liberty in America, the contrast between parties and candidates in this election is becoming increasingly clear.

Paul Dupont is the managing editor for ThePulse2016.com.