Short order

Written by Peter Smith on .

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Caveat: The Trump administration may yet carry out policies on religious liberty that have some substance.

But the mainly symbolic executive order that president signed on Thursday, the National Day of Prayer, called to mind an expression known to folks of a religious bent: "an epistle of straw."

It calls for the vigorous defense of religious liberty, which is fine, but it comes more than two centuries after the Bill of Rights guaranteed the free exercise of religion and prohibited congressional recognition of it. Ever since, the debate in and out of the courts has been about what specifically that entails.

So we look in the executive order for what specifically it says.

Not much.

The Treasury Department is instructed to interpret tax laws pretty much as the IRS does anyway, which is that clergy can preach about moral issues surrounding public-policy, and even when they cross the line into pulpit partisanship, they're rarely penalized. Even when activist pastors send recordings to the IRS, practically begging for a smack-down they can challenge in court, they're seldom obliged.

The other main thing in the executive order: Trump told federal agencies to work things out with those who have conscientious objections to the contraception mandate in Obamacare. Specifically, Catholic Charities of Pittsburgh and similar agencies don't want to have even an indirect role in having their female employees get contraceptives through their work health plans. 

Now, the Supreme Court last year already told the parties to work out their differences. (That was when the court was between Scalia and Gorsuch.) So that was already in the works. There's no secret that the Trump administration campaigned on being more responsive to their concerns than the outgoing Obama administration, which implemented the mandate in the first place. Since the executive order didn't dictate the terms of the settlement, the negotiations will go on. Probably the religious objectors will get their way. But that shift was signaled months before Thursday's executive order, and the order was really just another signal.

Above: National Day of Prayer observance in Market Square, Pittsburgh.



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