Washington D.C., Apr 29, 2017 / 05:27 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Catholic leaders have found cause for both praise and concern after the first 100 days of Donald Trump’s presidency. “Catholics have reason for optimism. But like the first 100 days, the road ahead remains difficult,” Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote.org, said on the organization’s scorecard for the first 100 days of the Trump presidency.
Pro-life leaders have found a lot to like from the Trump administration so far. “President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have been game changers for the pro-life movement,” Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser stated. “Not only have there been several pro-life victories within the first 100 days of their administration, we are confident that pro-life progress will continue. This is a new era.”
A week after Trump was inaugurated, Vice President Mike Pence addressed the 44th annual March for Life on the National Mall, the first time a sitting vice president has done so. Senior advisor Kellyanne Conway also addressed the pro-life rally. “Life is winning in America,” Pence insisted to cheering attendees, as he exhorted them to “let this movement be known for love, not anger” and “let it be known for compassion, not confrontation.”
On Jan. 23, Trump reinstated the Mexico City Policy which bans U.S. funding of international non-government organizations that promote or perform abortions. This is traditionally one of the first policy decisions a new president makes and serves as a signal of the administration’s policy on abortion. President Reagan first introduced the policy in 1984. It was repealed by President Clinton when he took office, reinstated by President Bush in 2001, and repealed again by President Obama in 2009.
In April, the Trump administration pulled its funding of the UNFPA over its involvement in China’s infamous two-child policy, formerly a one-child policy, which has resulted in mass forced sterilizations and abortions. Funding was redirected to USAID for family planning purposes. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, chair of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, called the funding withdrawal a “victory for women and children across the globe.”
Shortly afterward, the administration signed a joint resolution passed by Congress that nullified an Obama administration rule that pro-life leaders had called a “parting gift to Planned Parenthood.” That rule forbade states from withholding federal Title X funds to health providers simply because they performed abortions. Now with the rule nullified, states can once again block Planned Parenthood and other abortion groups from Title X funding. Cardinal Dolan also approved of that rule change, calling it a reversal of “very bad public policy.”
In addition to signing bills into law, “personnel is policy,” Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, insisted to reporters on a Thursday conference call on Trump’s first 100 days. She pointed to the picks of Vice President Mike Pence and senior advisor Kellyanne Conway as two examples of President Trump surrounding himself with persons with strong pro-life records.
Burch agreed that “President Trump has assembled a great Cabinet.” He pointed to the pro-life appointments at the Department of Health and Human Services as examples of this. Former pro-life congressman Dr. Tom Price was tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services; Dr. Charmaine Yoest, former CEO of the pro-life group Americans United for Life, has been named to be assistant secretary of public affairs at HHS; and lawyer Matt Bowman, formerly of Alliance Defending Freedom, was also picked to join HHS. “The Trump administration is staffed with thousands of high-caliber individuals like this,” Burch said.
Mancini also pointed to Trump’s nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as another positive sign for the pro-life movement. “Justice Gorsuch is a constitutionalist, committed to respecting the text and intent of lawmakers rather than legislating from the bench,” Burch stated, giving Trump an “A+” grade for the Supreme Court nomination.
CatholicVote provided a report card for Trump’s first 100 days. They gave Trump an “A” grade on the “sanctity of life” issues, noting that other achievements like the defunding of Planned Parenthood are still expected. Although Gorsuch had not ruled specifically on an abortion case as judge, pro-life leaders have noted his dissent in a Tenth Circuit decision that overturned Utah’s defunding of Planned Parenthood.
Additionally, in his confirmation hearings, when asked by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) if a “super-precedent” existed for the Court’s Roe decision that legalized abortion, Gorsuch would not say that one existed, only saying that the Roe decision had “precedent,” according to EWTN’s Dr. Matthew Bunson.
Gorsuch was confirmed by the Senate on April 7 after Democrats threatened a filibuster. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) invoked the “nuclear option” to end the filibuster threat, whereby Gorsuch could then be confirmed with a simple majority vote. He was confirmed by the Senate 54-45.
Gorsuch’s appointment is expected to impact religious freedom cases for years to come. One of the first major cases he heard from the Supreme Court bench was the religious freedom case of Trinity Lutheran, a preschool in Columbia, Mo. operated by Trinity Lutheran Church. That case is expected to be the premier religious freedom case of the Spring 2017 term.
Gorsuch sat over high-profile HHS mandate cases while he was on the Tenth Circuit, ruling both times with plaintiffs — Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor — in favor of their religious freedom to not comply with the birth control mandate and the supposed “accommodation” offered by the government to objecting non-profits.
Another significant move by Trump administration was to stop fighting in court for the Obama administration’s “transgender mandate.” That policy had directed schools to let students use the bathroom of their current gender identity and not their birth gender. Leading U.S. bishops had criticized the mandate as infringing on the “privacy concerns” of young students and said it “contradicts a basic understanding of human formation so well expressed by Pope Francis: that ‘the young need to be helped to accept their own body as it was created’.” After the administration announced it would drop its appeal for the policy in court, the Supreme Court sent a Virginia transgender bathroom case back to the lower courts.
However, the administration’s accomplishments in upholding religious freedom have ultimately been mixed, advocates argue, and one large reason why is that Trump has not issued a broad executive order upholding religious freedom and the rights of conscience as expected.
This is vital, Dr. Jay Richards of the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America said, because for any entity contracting with the government — or institutions receiving federal funding like Christian schools that provide federal student loans — they could be subject to actions from the government stemming from Obama-era orders on LGBT status. Thus, charities or schools that uphold traditional marriage as part of their mission could be subject to actions from the government, unless a new executive order protects them.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops tried to get support for such an executive order, insisting that “any Executive Order should make it clear that religious freedom entails more than the freedom to worship but also includes the ability to act on one's beliefs. It should also protect individuals and families who run closely-held businesses in accordance with their faith to the greatest extent possible.”
CatholicVote gave Trump a “C-“ grade on religious freedom issues, noting that “a leaked draft of an excellent Executive Order” on religious freedom “was stymied, according to reports, by Jared and Ivanka Trump along with outside left-wing groups.” “Catholics are patient, but want action on religious liberty. And soon,” Burch said.
Refugees and Immigration
Early in his first 100 days, Trump issued an executive order to temporarily halt refugee admissions into the U.S. for four months and indefinitely suspend the admission of Syrian refugees. The order also halted visa admissions for most persons from seven countries: Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen.
The order was ultimately halted from going into effect by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court. A revised executive order that was released later left out the indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and left Iraq off the list of countries from which most nationals would be barred from entering the U.S. It still halted refugee admissions for four months and capped the overall intake for FY 2017 at 50,000 refugees.
Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Tex., the chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, was “deeply troubled” at the revised order and said that the refugee admissions program was already well-vetted and secure. Catholic Relief Services said that since global forced displacement is at its highest levels ever recorded, the U.S. must not shut off its refugee admissions program. The order was ultimately halted from going into effect by federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland.
Trump also signed an executive order in January that would bar federal funding of “sanctuary cities,” or cities that publicly did not follow through with federal laws on deportation of undocumented immigrants. The chair of the U.S. bishops’ migration committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Tex., stated that the move “would force all jurisdictions to accept a one-size-fits-all regime that might not be best for their particular jurisdictions.”
In February, the Department of Homeland Security, enforcing the immigration orders, released new rules that did away with protections for unaccompanied children and asylum seekers coming to the border, created new detention centers, sped up the deportation process, and increased the punishments for undocumented parents who have their children smuggled into the U.S.
Bishop Vasquez warned that the new rules “greatly expand the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border.”
CatholicVote, meanwhile, rated Trump’s immigration policies so far a “B,” saying that “his poorly drafted and delivered order on restricting refugees from dangerous countries was revised and continues to face legal opposition,” but “his stepped-up enforcement has rightly focused on hardened criminals while moderating on those who immigrated illegally as children (Dreamers).” “Illegal immigration has plummeted, even without a wall,” Burch stated.
Another major priority for Trump’s first 100 days was health care. A replacement for the Affordable Care Act was introduced in March with the goal of passing it on March 23, the seven-year anniversary of the ACA being signed into law. The proposed American Health Care Act attempted to keep in place some policies of the original health care law like a ban on insurers denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and young people being able to stay on their parents’ health plans until the age of 26. However, it sought to replace other major parts of the law.
The individual mandate — enforced by fines for people not having health insurance — would be replaced with a fine of up to 30 percent of one’s new premium for a significant gap in coverage. Federal subsidies would be replaced with tax credits for purchasing insurance.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had ultimately opposed the Affordable Care Act under Obama because of provisions they said allowed for abortion funding in health plans. They praised the original health care law’s expansion of coverage for low-income and sick groups, although they opposed its lack of coverage for immigrants. With the new proposal, leading bishops praised its protections against federal funding of elective abortions, but expressed serious concerns with its lack of conscience protections for doctors and other health care providers against government mandates like the transgender mandate.
Additionally, Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the bishops’ domestic justice committee, worried that the new legislation could result in less affordable coverage for groups that need it the most: the elderly, the chronically ill, and the poor. For instance, the tax credits replacing subsidies were not favorably written for the elderly, he said. The 30 percent fine for a gap in coverage could act as a deterrent for someone to purchase health coverage.
Groups like the Catholic health care ministry (CMF) CURO, however, supported passage of the new bill as a step in the direction of more patient-centered health care reform, as well as a law that would help reduce abortion funding in health care.
Ultimately, the American Health Care Act failed to even make it to the House floor for a vote, but has been amended and brought back to consideration in the House. Among the new additions is an amendment that allows states to do away with “essential health benefits” like coverage for maternity care and hospitalizations that were mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
Bishop Dewane issued a strong statement this week criticizing the revised health care bill for similar reasons as he opposed the original AHCA. Members of Congress should not vote for the revised bill, he said on Thursday.
On foreign policy, Trump ordered missile strikes earlier this month on a Syrian airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack in Idlib that killed around 100 and hospitalized hundreds. After the Syrian air force had bombed a neighborhood in the Idlib province, hundreds of civilians either died or were hospitalized with symptoms of exposure to sarin, a deadly nerve agent.
The U.S. said that forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad were responsible for the attack, and a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean launched Tomahawk cruise missiles against the airbase that was used by Syrian forces for the bombing.
Moral theologian Joseph Capizzi of The Catholic University of America told CNA that the response was “judicious” and was needed to uphold international agreements against the use of chemical weapons. Dr. Tom Farr of Georgetown University said “the strikes were fully justified, both as a means of punishing the evil acts that took place - especially (but not only) the slow torture and execution of babies by means of Sarin gas - and as a means of deterring the regime from further acts of evil like this.”
Meanwhile, Syrian clerics decried the attack, saying that an investigation should have been first conducted to prove who the perpetrators of the chemical attack were. Melkite Archbishop Jean-Clement Jeanbart of Aleppo told CNA he hoped the U.S. “would have done something toward peace and reconciliation and a political solution” in Syria.