What did Trump’s religious liberty order do? Essentially, what the Supreme Court already did in its last ruling. 

In turn, the high court in March 2016 and the new president in May 2017 gave government agencies the assignment to back off from pressing a legal case against the Little Sisters of the Poor and others to fulfill the federal HHS mandate, or pay prohibitive fines.

Yes, it is news that President Trump promised to end this and other coercive government mandates that violate religious liberty and conscience rights, and it’s further news that on the National Day of Prayer, he called together religious leaders for a White House ceremony surrounding his signing of an executive order concerning religious liberty. But the anticipation exceeded the delivery of full relief from the HHS mandate, fought in courts across the country for at least five years.

The mandate, unprecedented in American history, forces religious institutions to pay for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-causing drugs, including the morning-after pill and the week-after pill, against their deeply held religious beliefs. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is the first and leading law firm to challenge this mandate…

As of mid-March, Becket was still in courts across the country defending religious freedom rights of dozens of groups, organizations and businesses still seeking relief from the mandate, although the new administration had offered promise of ending threats to religious freedom.

“The mandate is still on the books, and it needs to come off the books,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel with the Becket Fund, who noted that (HHS Secretary Tom) Price has indicated he believes the mandate is “trampling on religious liberty.”

Trump also promised on the campaign trail that religious orders like the Little Sisters of the Poor would not be bullied by the federal government.

“It’s not acceptable to simply leave it in place. It has to be taken care of,” Rienzi told the (National Catholic) Register…

Rienzi said Congress could address the issue with new legislation, which he suggested would be preferable because then nonprofits like the Little Sisters of Poor would have the federal law on their side, and not risk being dragged back into court if another administration were to later take power and rewrite the regulations.

“For now, the litigation remains alive, the law remains alive, and it’s still on the books,” Rienzi said. “Something has to be done to resolve the thing. The courts will give the government some time, but, ultimately, they need to take steps to get rid of it.”

With the announcement of the May 4th signing of an executive order on religious freedom, all these faith based groups and leaders hoped President Trump would get rid of it. He, and his executive order, did not, exactly.

As Becket explained in a carefully worded statement:

President Trump issued an Executive Order directing HHS and other federal agencies to protect the Little Sisters of the Poor and other religious ministries from the HHS Mandate.

Following the order, HHS Secretary Tom Price said that HHS “will be taking action in short order” to protect the Little Sisters and other religious ministries harmed by the Mandate. This means:

The agencies must fix their rules to exempt the Little Sisters and other religious groups from the HHS mandate.

The agencies must end their unnecessary legal fights against the Little Sisters and other ministries in courts around the country.

While that wording is exact, neither overstating nor understating, I was left wondering what the executive order actually did by “directing HHS and other federal agencies to protect the Little Sisters” and others from the mandate. Define “action” and “short order”. How must federal agencies “fix their rules to exempt the Little Sisters and other religious groups”? And what does the president mean, exactly, by ordering that federal agencies “must end their unnecessary legal fights against the Little Sisters and other ministries in courts around the country”?

National Review Online’s David French called this executive order “dangerous nothingness”. The Chicago Tribune’s Steve Chapman wrote an opinion piece headlining the order as “religious nothingness”.

It is more than nothing but less than the dramatically significant something sought and expected by people exercising their beliefs in public service and threatened by government intrusion into their right to do so. Even the ACLU found it unnecessary to bother fighting this order, calling it “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome”.

Maybe. But maybe they’ll be surprised. The Little Sisters of the Poor will not likely be seen in, or on the steps of, the Supreme Court pleading their case again. 

Sheila Liaugminas writes from Chicago. She is a journalist, author and host of A Closer Look on Relevant Radio.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....