Bishops launch letter campaign urging Trump to protect religious freedom

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington is seen July 4, 2016, prior to the closing Mass of the Fortnight for Freedom. (CNS photo | Jaclyn Lippelmann, Catholic Standard)

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Saying “religious freedom in America has suffered years of unprecedented erosion,” the U.S. Catholic bishops have posted an online letter for Catholics to send to President Donald Trump urging him to sign an executive order promoting religious freedom.

The letter, found at www.votervoice.net/USCCB/Campaigns, says the president can “restore the federal government’s respect for the religious freedom of individuals and organizations” with an executive order that establishes a “government-wide initiative to respect religious freedom.” Individuals can sign the letter and hit a link to submit it to Trump.

A leaked draft version of a potential religious freedom order was circulating in the media and among federal staff and advocacy groups at the end of January. When White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked about the draft Jan. 30, he said he would not get “ahead of the executive orders that we may or may not issue.” He noted that there have been a lot of executive actions and “a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now.”

A White House official told ABC News that the leaked draft on religious freedom is one of hundreds of circulating orders that were either written by the transition team or the White House.

Although Spicer did not elaborate on the leaked document, he told reporters that freedom of religion in the U.S. should mean “people should be able to practice their religion, express their religion, express areas of their faith without reprisal.”

“And I think that pendulum sometimes swings the other way in the name of political correctness,” he added.

The four-page draft has raised concerns among those who said it would legalize discrimination and was too far-reaching, but University of Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett said in an email to Catholic News Service that the “critics are dramatically overstating” what the order can do.

The draft states that “Americans and their religious organizations will not be coerced by the federal government into participating in activities that violate their consciences.” It also notes that people and organizations do not “forfeit their religious freedom when providing social services, education or health care.” It cites the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which states that government “shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless that burden “is the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.”