May 6, 2017 (Windy Hill Beach, South Carolina) — The following comments on religious freedom by Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) are excerpted from May 4, 2017 Congressional Record:
Mr. BLUNT. Mr. President, I will speak in a few minutes about the business before the Senate today, but first I wish to speak about what is happening at the White House today.
President Trump is expected to sign an Executive order to protect religious freedom. Many times during the last year, the President has talked about his commitment and our commitment as a nation to religious freedom, but I expect that today he will lay down, specifically, by Executive order the policy of this administration to protect and to vigorously promote religious liberty — not to vigorously promote religion but to vigorously promote religious liberty.
Reports are that the President will tell the IRS that we can’t challenge churches and what they say, as well as challenge their not-for-profit status, simply because of what that pastor or that rabbi or that imam believes in the place where they deliver their message and how they live out their faith. It also tells Federal agencies to stop forcing religious organizations to pay fines if they don’t want to cover certain healthcare items that conflict with their faith views.
In fact, just this week, Senator Strange and I sent a letter to the Attorney General after we saw that in the Fifth Circuit the Attorney General’s office had said that they want 60 more days for all of these pending cases on this very matter. In the letter that Senator Strange and I sent to our former colleague, the Attorney General, we just pointed out to him that the President repeatedly said, as a candidate for President, that this sort of [[Page S2736]] continued action of taking religious organizations to court that simply want the ability to practice their faith is going to stop, and we hope it stops and we hope it stops now.
Lastly, I think this order has the potential to be either more specific or to really instruct the Attorney General to look throughout the agencies of government and issue guidance, so that in all of those agencies, as they go about the work that they do, one of the things they want to be sure they are doing is promoting religious liberty; so that religious organizations that have traditionally or are hoping in the future to be delivery services for adoption, delivery services for addiction, delivery services for other problems that people face, would continue to have the ability to be competing to provide those services.
We know this hasn’t happened over the last several months. Religious groups that have had contracts for a long time and the availability to provide those services, even when they scored the highest on the scoring of the competitive bids for these contracts, were not given the contracts because they were faith-based.
Well, if there is any country in the world that has understood the importance of religious liberty, it has been the United States. Religious freedom is the first freedom in the First Amendment to the Constitution, the first right in the Bill of Rights, and I don’t believe that is by accident. No other country in the history of the world ever committed itself to religious freedom as our country did from the very first weeks of the government under the Constitution. No country ever held this as a principled tenet of what they would stand for as a country prior to the United States doing that.
We might recall how we come to the place today where the President has to issue an Executive order protecting religious freedom. In 1993, President Clinton signed into law the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That act really affirmed that the Federal Government shouldn’t infringe on individual religious beliefs unless there was an overriding public purpose to do so. If, in fact, it was found to be necessary to infringe on somebody’s religious beliefs because of that overriding public purpose — if there was justification that there was one — then we should really only interfere with it in the least intrusive way and we should do the minimum necessary to meet whatever that greater public need might be.
It is unbelievable to me that in recent years, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, Christian colleges, or other groups that are traditionally providing services are suddenly finding themselves in court defending who they are and who they hope to be. The order issued today would finally provide that relief in a case like the Little Sisters of the Poor. I looked a few months ago at their stated purpose and it is, for the Little Sisters of the Poor, to receive older people without means, regardless of their faith, and treat them like they were Jesus Christ. Now, that doesn’t sound like a group that the Federal Government would have to crack down on. But the Federal Government, in recent years, decided that, in fact, they should force this group to do things that violate its faith principles. There is no possible greater good to be accomplished by that. Hopefully, this Executive order makes it clear today that harassment of religious groups is going to stop and that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act principles are still principles in our country and, more importantly, that the First Amendment is still a founding principle in our country.
There is no question in the mind of any American, I think, that the U.S. Government should do everything in its power to defend and protect religious freedom. Whether you are a person of faith or a person of no faith at all, you should be able to pursue those beliefs.
When Jefferson was asked in the last year of his Presidency which freedom is most important, he said that the right of conscience is the freedom that we should most vigorously defend — the right to believe what we believe and pursue what we believe.
That has been further defined over the years by this: If there are times when that creates a true hazard to others, others have a right to come in and explain that, and the government has a right to see what can be done about that and still maintain in every way possible the essence of belief that people have.
So I commend the President for the action that he is reported to be taking later today. I continue to be not only supportive of the President’s view that religious freedom is a critical tenet of who we are, but also I look forward to working with his administration as they further put this Executive order into place throughout the agencies of government.