The chaos of the refugee order. The bombshell of Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court. They are like a flash of direct sunlight to the retina: they fill your eyes with light while distracting your attention and leaving everything else in your field of vision spotted and blurry.
You miss things after such a spectacle. This week many Americans have been so distracted that they barely noticed a massively important piece of news that came out Monday. President Trump has decided to keep a President Obama executive order that established special workplace privileges for LGBT people. The New York Times reports:
…the White House said the president was proud to embrace gay rights.
‘President Trump continues to be respectful and supportive of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, just as he was throughout the election,’ the statement said. ‘The president is proud to have been the first ever G.O.P. nominee to mention the L.G.B.T.Q. community in his nomination acceptance speech, pledging then to protect the community from violence and oppression.’
The decision to keep the order, the statement added, was Mr. Trump’s. It uses stronger language than any Republican president has before in favor of equal legal protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, though that is not likely to quiet Mr. Trump’s critics on the left.
To say that this kind of enthusiasm is unusual for a Republican president would be an understatement. Nor does this reflect the attitudes of your average conservative voter. Religious conservatives in particular have expressed concern about this executive order, but not for reasons that their opponents might think.
Religious conservatives are not vying for gays and lesbians to lose work because they identify as gay or lesbian. They oppose these orders because they lack necessary protections for religious liberty. President Obama’s order places an undue burden on the consciences of people and organizations that may not agree with the government’s view of sexuality (for example, a Christian university).
When President Obama issued the order in 2014, the Heritage Institute’s Ryan Anderson contended against it, and for good reason:
Today’s order disregards the consciences and liberties of people of goodwill who happen not to share the government’s opinions about issues of sexuality. All Americans should be free to contract with the government without penalty because of their reasonable beliefs about morally contentious issues.
Federal policy on government contracts should not seek to enforce monolithic liberal secularism. Today’s order undermines our nation’s commitment to reasonable pluralism and reasonable diversity. All citizens and the groups they form should be free to exist and participate in relevant government programs according to their reasonable beliefs. The federal government should not use the tax-code and government contracting to reshape civil society on controversial moral issues that have nothing to do with the federal contract at stake.
This Is No Surprise
It is not surprising that the Trump administration is keeping this order. Contrary to conventional wisdom, President Trump has given every indication that he wishes to be LGBT friendly. That is why he gave Peter Thiel a speaking slot at the GOP convention last summer.
It’s also why Joe Scarborough warned religious conservatives last summer that Trump is not a true believer on the issues they care most about. President Trump will support some of the causes of religious conservatives, for political reasons. But his actions on these issues do not necessarily represent his own conviction—which we know historically has been very liberal.
President Trump might issue an executive order providing for religious liberty protections. I hope and pray that happens. But it is already a significant loss that he is willing to speak of LGBT as a protected class—a legal category inherent in sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) laws that have caused problems for religious liberty all over the country.
Does This Foretell Nationwide Religious Discrimination?
When President Obama issued this order, he linked it to congressional efforts to pass an Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a federal measure that Democrats have introduced repeatedly in Congress but until now has failed to pass. That measure would establish LGBT as a protected class nationwide, and it is clear that President Obama intended to achieve the same result insofar as he could through unilateral executive authority.
That President Trump seems to be willing to use his executive authority to affirm President Obama’s order and to recognize LGBT as a protected class is a very big deal and a major departure for a Republican president. It raises the question whether President Trump would support a federal SOGI law like ENDA—something that activists have been trying to get passed for years. What if President Trump gets a Democratic Congress in 2018 that passes ENDA? Would President sign such a measure or veto it? Such a law would be catastrophic for religious liberty.
Social conservatives need to be on the alert. They need to be aware that the administration may use chaos to distract attention from substantive policy changes that test the allegiance of constituencies that voted for President Trump. This seems particularly relevant to religious conservatives: a constituency that is particularly liable to be targeted with symbolic or substantive moves that obscure additional, and at times more concerning, changes.
I hope the president clarifies his intent in all of this. His endorsement of President Obama’s executive order is not a good sign. Hopefully, it is not an indication of things to come.