“The agencies have everything they need to review these rules and make sure groups like the Little Sisters are protected,” Lori Windham, senior counsel with the Becket Fund, told reporters.
“We will engage with the Administration to ensure that adequate relief is provided to those with deeply held religious beliefs about some of the drugs, devices, and surgical procedures that HHS has sought to require people of faith to facilitate over the last several years,” Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, stated on Thursday.
“We welcome a decision to provide a broad religious exemption to the HHS mandate, but will have to review the details of any regulatory proposals,” he added.
The new order also declared that “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom” and instructed the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.”
Still, many religious freedom advocates felt that the order did not go far enough. For example, it does not offer protections for health care workers and facilities that decline to perform abortions, or adoption agencies that place children only in homes with both a mother and a father.
“Today’s executive order is woefully inadequate,” Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation stated in The Daily Signal, saying it “does not address the major threats to religious liberty in the United States today.”
It is narrower than the previous draft of a religious freedom executive order that had earlier been leaked to The Nation, but was ultimately scrapped in February. That draft had outlined religious freedom exemptions for not only religious organizations, but also closely-held for-profit businesses in many different areas, like education, health care, and employment.
Religious freedom advocates – including over 50 members of Congress, in an April 5 letter to President Trump – had hoped for broader religious protections in a new executive order.
Cardinal DiNardo noted that “in areas as diverse as adoption, education, healthcare, and other social services, widely held moral and religious beliefs, especially regarding the protection of human life as well as preserving marriage and family, have been maligned in recent years as bigotry or hostility – and penalized accordingly.”
“We will continue to advocate for permanent relief from Congress on issues of critical importance to people of faith,” he added.
Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, told CNA that the order was “an important first step” toward protecting religious freedom, but more must be done.
(Story continues below)
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“The substance of the order is certainly a win for groups like EWTN, Notre Dame, the Little Sisters of the Poor, but it is not everything that we hoped for,” he told CNA. “And therefore I describe it as a work in progress, in terms of the fight for religious liberty. We didn’t get into this mess in one fell swoop, and we’re not going to get out of it in one clean solution.”
He stressed the need for “protections for faith-based groups on the issue of marriage, on gender, the right of the Catholic Church to carry out its social services when they receive federal grants.”
Burch also pushed for legislative action, like the First Amendment Defense Act and the Conscience Protection Act.
The administration also needs to be staffed with the right people in federal agencies who will be friendly to religious freedom, Professor Robert Destro of Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law told CNA.
“Personnel is policy,” he said, and Trump still needs to make hundreds of hires in these regulatory agencies that interpret existing law, including the agencies that will be dealing with HHS mandate protections for religious organizations.
Trump signed the executive order on the National Day of Prayer, and after he met with Cardinal Wuerl and Cardinal DiNardo.