January 31, 2020

Developments in Washington

By Maureen Ferguson *
Credit: Unsplash.
Credit: Unsplash.

One can be forgiven for thinking all of Washington, D.C., has been consumed by impeachment frenzy these past weeks. Look closer, though, and you’ll see that while Trump administration lawyers have been tied down by the Senate trial, other administration officials have been engaged in a flurry of policy making. These new policies have gone largely unnoticed, but they are of crucial – and positive – importance to all people of faith.   

The last weeks alone have witnessed sweeping developments on prayer in public schools, discrimination against religious organizations, mandatory abortion coverage in health insurance plans, and government funding of programs encouraging childbirth over abortion. Additionally, the president himself attended the March for Life, and Vice President Pence held a significant meeting with Pope Francis.

On school prayer, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos issued guidance clarifying that students do not compromise their right to pray because they attend a public school or university. The DeVos directive also ensures that religious student groups remain on equal footing with secular student groups. This is a critical response to the recent trend of universities’ disallowing any and all religious expression or association at public institutions of higher education. As DeVos stated, "Too many misinterpret a separation of church and state as an invitation for government to separate people from their faith."

Public colleges and universities won’t be able to get away with this any longer, thanks to the Trump Administration. The DeVos directive reaffirms the First Amendment right of students to express religious beliefs in their schoolwork as well as to gather to pray at appropriate times. This sends a strong message to school bureaucrats inclined to ban students from praying before high school football games or to defund Christian student groups at public universities.

The administration also issued far-reaching rules stating that religious and non-religious charities must be treated equally in the federal grant process. Team Trump has leveled the playing field. Religious charities will now be free to compete for federal grants to serve their fellow Americans. Not only is this a huge win for religious freedom, but it’s also a huge win for the poor and vulnerable. Because, as we know, Catholic and other religious charities are highly regarded as among best in the field of adoption and foster care, caring for victims of human trafficking, providing for the elderly and the poor, and working with refugees and other vulnerable immigrant populations. Nine federal agencies participated in this rule making. The new rule applies across the entire federal government, removing discriminatory regulatory burdens that push religious entities out of the public square – and out of public service. In short, our nation’s social safety net just got stronger.

Another significant announcement is that the administration will vigorously enforce the Weldon Amendment, a longstanding law protecting conscience rights. California has been flagrantly violating this law by forcing all health insurance plans in the state, including Catholic health plans, to cover and pay for elective abortions. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the policy “abhorrent, unjust and illegal… [a] supreme injustice.” The bishops welcomed the Trump administration’s action as “extraordinarily good news for the right to life, conscientious objection, religious freedom, and the rule of law.”

Moreover, the Department of Health and Human Services just came down squarely in support of state healthcare programs that recognize the sanctity of life. Texas had decided years ago that its Medicaid program would support pregnant women and their unborn children, but not abortion-promoting groups like Planned Parenthood. The Obama administration went after Texas but the Trump Administration just granted the necessary waiver supporting Texas’ pro-life policy.

That’s all policy, but it’s worth noting again what President Trump and Vice President Pence have been doing themselves. Trump addressed the March for Life rally in person, something no other president has done. Ever. The vice president also spoke to the pro-life March via video from St. Peter’s square at the Vatican, where Pence also had an hour-long private meeting with Pope Francis. The pope and vice president reportedly had a very warm meeting in which they agreed that the cause of life is the “most pressing moral issue of our time.” They also shared their commitment to persecuted Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East. Pence talked of how proud he is that the United States has partnered with the Knight of Columbus to help rebuild Christian communities once decimated by ISIS in the Nineveh plain.

So while the media obsesses over Bolton bombshells and the McConnell vs. Schumer showdown, hardworking policy makers across the administration, empowered by the president to act, have made a significant difference in the lives of people of faith – and the children of God they serve.

Maureen Malloy Ferguson is a Senior Fellow for The Catholic Association.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.