May 15, 2017 at 7:54 am EDT | by Chris Johnson
Trump extols ‘religious freedom’ order at Liberty University

President Trump disparaged critics as “pathetic” in a Liberty University commencement speech. (Screenshot via CSPAN)

In a commencement speech at a school with an anti-LGBT reputation, President Trump extolled a recent executive order he signed in the name of “religious freedom” that opponents say could lay the groundwork for anti-LGBT discrimination.

Trump made the remarks during his commencement speech Saturday at Liberty University, saying in reference to the executive order he “did some very important signings” recently for religious freedom.

“America is better when people put their faith into action,” Trump said. “As long as I am your president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart.”

It wasn’t clear whether Trump was referencing the issue of clerks refusing to marry same-sex couples in his remarks, although he has endorsed “religious freedom” legislation known as the First Amendment Defense Act that critics say would allow anti-LGBT discrimination.

Although the religious freedom executive order on its face doesn’t allow discrimination against LGBT people, the measure instructs U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to “as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.” Some LGBT advocates have said that language will empower Sessions to find ways to discriminate against LGBT people, such as allowing workers at federal agencies to refuse to process paperwork for same-sex couples in the name of “religious freedom.”

Other observers don’t read the executive order the same way. The American Civil Liberties Union had threatened to sue Trump over the executive order, but later declined to take that action on the basis that it was “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”

The “religious freedom” executive order reference was a small component of a commencement speech in which Trump encouraged graduates to look to the future and emphasized the importance of faith in America. On the day before Mother’s Day, Trump invoked the idea of his late mother smiling down on him from heaven and the late Rev. Jerry Falwell smiling down on his son, Jerry Falwell Jr., who’s president of Liberty University.

At a time when Trump is under fire for his administration’s actions and the firing of FBI Director James Comey as he was conducting an investigation on whether he colluded with Russian in hacking in the 2016 election, Trump also during his speech belittled critics when encouraging graduates to pursue their dreams.

“Nothing is easier or more pathetic than being a critic, because they’re people that can’t get the job done. But the future belongs to the dreamers, not to the critics,” Trump said. “The future belongs to the people who follow their heart no matter what the critics say because they truly believe in their vision.”

Trump’s commencement speech marks the first time since President George H.W. Bush spoke at Liberty University in 1990 that the school has hosted a sitting U.S. president. The speech is also the first commencement address Trump delivered as president.

A Baptist school, Liberty University has an anti-LGBT reputation. The university has a policy of prohibiting “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman,” which prohibits intimate relationships with LGBT people.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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