President Trump had a busy Thursday, and I wasn't happy at the end of it. Watching him cheer the American Health Care Act's (AHCA) passage through the House was one thing, but let's not forget something else he did that day. Trump took a little step toward crossing the barrier between church and state when he signed an executive order allowing employers to deny their workers health coverage under the guise of "religious liberty." And as a Jewish atheist, Trump's religious freedom executive order scares me a lot.
As many have pointed out, the executive order might not actually do that much for religious groups who were hoping for more. The power of the president is simply too limited in cases like these to make broad changes to the law without Congress behind him — although that also isn't a comforting thought at the moment. But that's not what I'm reacting to. Trump, as is often the case, didn't sign the order quietly. He signed it with a lot of fanfare, and it's what Trump said at the ceremony that's the worst part.
"Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation," he said at a press conference in the Rose Garden. "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore. ... We are giving our churches their voices back."
Trump was certainly catering to evangelical leaders when he wrote the speech, and the whole order can largely be described as a sort of "thank you" to a group that helped elect him. But by talking directly to them, he's doing what you hear conservative politicians do all to frequently — forgetting that "faith" isn't interchangeable with "Christianity," and that the First Amendment applies not only to people of faith, but also to people without faith.
As someone who is culturally Jewish, who was raised celebrating all the important Jewish holidays and who enthusiastically had her Bat Mitzvah at 13, it always stings to hear people use the word "church" to refer to all places of worship. There are no churches in Judaism, or in many other religions. Intentional or not, he's leaving us out in a speech like that. We're not the people of faith he's talking about, despite his daughter (who converted to Judaism) and his grandchildren.
I am an ardent atheist. As someone who's read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who's dedicated a lot of time to thinking about the subject, and who only felt comfortable in a belief system when I realized, at age 23, that I didn't need one at all, Trump speech sounds even worse.
As much as I can infer from the signing ceremony about whether he cares about religious freedom for Jews, I can take directly from his words that he doesn't care about religious freedom for atheists. Faith may be embedded in the history of the nation, but not in its laws or, I would argue, its soul — in fact, it's expressly kept separate. And giving churches a voice in politics — which the Constitution forbids — is the scariest part.
I still have to trust that America's commitment to the separation of church and state will protect us from laws that would favor one religion over another — or, favor religion at all. But with that speech, Trump signaled that he's willing to start a fight over it, and he's not siding with minority religions, or with the most disliked religious minority of them all: atheists. With that speech, he's saying that we don't matter. He's perpetuating the deep mistrust that many Americans have for "godless individuals." This order might not have accomplished a lot, but I'll be surprised if he doesn't try to keep going down this path.
Sanctioning discrimination against one religion or another has become a common theme in this administration so far, what with the attempts at a Muslim ban cloaked as a travel ban, the numerous threats on Jewish communities across the country, and Sean Spicer's unfortunate comments about the Holocaust. But in signing this order, Trump is trying to prove that he stands with the religious majority — the ones who, in reality, aren't actually facing widespread discrimination, at least not in the United States. This latest order is an attack on women who want contraception and on gays and lesbians who want equal rights, but more than that, it's an attack on the secular way of life and set of laws that protects us and allows us to exist freely, believing what we want.
Allowing churches to be more active in the political system without threatening their tax exempt status isn't religious freedom, it's an attempt to insert religion in a realm where it's not allowed: the secular laws governing the country. Allowing corporations or organizations run by religious people to deny employees their health care coverage isn't giving religious freedom to the owners, it's taking it away from the employees who then are forced to live by their employers' religious beliefs. Trump said his order meant that people of faith wouldn't be bullied anymore, but it gives them leeway to bully others who don't share their faith.
I promise, I'm not a danger to society. I won't try to convert anyone to my godless way of life. As the saying goes, my right to swing my hand ends where your nose begins. But I expect the same from everyone else, too, and Trump has demonstrated that if it's a particular religious group in question, they can swing their fists freely without regard to my nose. Religious freedom is, indeed, of paramount importance — and this executive order is a flat-out attack on it.