May 4, 2018 at 12:08 pm EDT | by Chris Johnson
Trump’s new faith initiative raises concerns among LGBT advocates

President Trump signs an executive order creating a new faith initiative.

President Trump’s new initiative to support faith-based organizations with federal assistance is stirring unease among LGBT rights supporters, who say they’ll keep watch to ensure the program doesn’t enable anti-LGBT discrimination.

Trump, who created the initiative by executive order on Thursday on the National Day of Prayer, said during a signing ceremony in the White House Rose Garden the program will “help design new policies that recognize the vital role of faith in our families, our communities, and our great country.”

“This office will also help ensure that faith-based organizations have equal access to government funding and the equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs,” Trump said. “We take this step because we know that, in solving the many, many problems and our great challenges, faith is more powerful than government, and nothing is more powerful than God.”

Among those present for the ceremony were Vice President Mike Pence; Jean Bingham, general president of the Relief Society for the Mormon Church; Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl; and Narayanachar Digalakote, priest at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Md.

The executive order renames as the White House Faith & Opportunity Initiative the program known under the Obama administration as the Office of Faith-Based & Community Initiatives.

According to the White House, the initiative will provide policy recommendations for the administration’s faith-based and community programs, such as ideas on helping these programs deliver more effective solutions to combat poverty.

The initiative is also charged with apprising the administration of any failures within the executive branch in complying with “religious freedom” protections — a term often used to mean anti-LGBT discrimination — and to reduce the burdens on the exercise of free religion.

Tony Perkins, president of the anti-LGBT Family Research Council, praised Trump in a statement.

“The announcement of President Trump’s faith initiative is further evidence that this administration is not only committed to protecting our First Freedom but in also acknowledging that our faith in God contributes to the guidance and well-being of our country,” Perkins said.

The Obama-era program was itself a restructuring of a program established in 2001 during the administration of George W. Bush. The Bush-era program was criticized as a potential violation of the Establishment Clause and as a payoff to faith leaders to encourage support for Bush’s presidency and re-election in 2004, which may be Trump’s aims as well as the congressional mid-term elections approach.

Trump signs his executive order creating the initiative on the anniversary of a “religious freedom” executive order he signed last year. That order was criticized by LGBT rights supporters because it directed U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to create “religious freedom” guidance seen to enable anti-LGBT discrimination under the law.

The new initiative also echoes the creation of the Conscience & Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health & Human Services. Critics say that division will enable medical practitioners to deny services to women seeking abortions or transgender people seeking transition-related care, including gender reassignment surgery.

Although LGBT rights supporters weren’t ready to pounce on the new Trump initiative, they expressed concern about the program and said they were wary of its impact.

Daniel Mach, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s program on freedom of religion and belief, said in a statement the new initiative must not direct taxpayer money to organizations that discriminate against LGBT people.

“Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights. But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate,” Mach said. “The ACLU will be watching this initiative closely to ensure that it does not promote policies that violate these core principles.”

Sharon McGowan, director of strategy for Lambda Legal, said, “there isn’t a lot of substance” in the executive order, but it reeks of earlier Trump administration efforts enabling anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of ‘religious freedom.’

“As we saw in the proposed rule coming out of HHS last January, this administration thinks that it burdens someone’s religious belief to have to provide appropriate health care to a trans person, or even to make a referral to someone who will,” McGowan said. “This EO is very much of a piece with last year’s EO, Jeff Sessions’ proclamation from last fall, and what’s come out of HHS.”

McGowan said the executive order is also consistent with Sessions’ pledge to the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom to restructure the federal government to favor religious freedom even at the expense of protecting others from discrimination.

“So while there isn’t really much in here that’s new, it is another piece of the larger structure that this administration is building to weaponize religion,” McGowan said. “Faith doesn’t have to be synonymous with discrimination, but that certainly seems to be what this administration means.”

Kasey Suffredini, president of strategy at Freedom for All Americans, went a step further and said the initiative makes religion “a tool to cause harm.”

“By allowing agencies that receive taxpayer dollars to discriminate against LGBTQ people as long as they cite religion as the reason for doing so, this administration has weaponized religion in a way that prioritizes anti-LGBTQ bias over vulnerable children finding loving homes,” Suffredini said. “President Trump’s continued attacks on LGBTQ families hurt everyone — and they will not stand.”

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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