It's not a date most people have circled on their calendars. But whether they know it or not, May 4, 2017 was the day most Americans were set free. Free from government imposed anti-religious mandates, court battles, and fines. Free from jail threats, harassment, and closures. After eight long years of an administration at war with religious freedom, President Trump leaned over a piece of paper in the Rose Garden and vowed, "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore."
It was the first step of a thousand this administration has taken to reverse the devastating trends of the Obama years. Now, three years into his executive order on religious liberty, Americans don't have to live in fear of the federal government. For once, Washington is an ally -- not an enemy, at least on religious freedom. He's proven it with meat packers, cake bakers, nuns, and Air Force colonels. Then he sided with health workers, adoption agencies, private schools, and federal contractors. Because for President Trump, restoring religious freedom wasn't just a box he checked on his campaign promise whiteboard. It was a deeply personal mission to restore what Americans had lost.
Even now, in a time of unprecedented, nationwide suffering, this administration hasn't let a challenge like the coronavirus distract it from the commitment it made more than 1,000 days ago: to protect what America stands for. The Trump team has been adamant, even from the earliest days of this outbreak: "the Constitution is not suspended in times of crisis." If ever we needed faith, the administration has insisted, it's now.
And thanks to Trump's Department of Justice, local churches are getting the help they need to practice it. When local officials have used the lockdown to put the squeeze on churches, Attorney General William Barr's staff has been on the ground, pushing back. "Expect action," DOJ's Kerri Kupec warned any would-be tyrants. And they got it. Just last week, in a shot across the bow, the nation's chief law enforcer said all eyes were on the states. Any threats to freedom, Barr insisted, and his attorneys would be there in a flash to intervene.
If they were unconvinced, at least two incidents should have proven the DOJ's sincerity. In Mississippi, where churches were being ticketed for drive-in services, Barr himself ordered his staff to file a "statement of interest" in the case -- which essentially, DOJ's Eric Dreiband explained on "Washington Watch," tells the court which way the department thinks they should rule. Fortunately, the court listened and agreed that the city can't single out churchgoers for harsher treatment than anyone else.
Over this past weekend, Dreiband's staff was busy again -- this time in Virginia, where police (under liberal Governor Ralph Northam's direction) threated a pastor with jail time for holding a 16-person church service on Palm Sunday. State officials say that the Lighthouse church somehow violated the Virginia Constitution. Hardly, the DOJ insists, since the pastor insisted on "rigorous social-distancing and personal-hygiene protocols." As far as Barr's team is concerned, the criminal treatment of these churches is unacceptable. "The Commonwealth of Virginia has offered no good reason for refusing to trust congregants who promise to use care in worship in the same way it trusts accountants, lawyers, and other workers to do the same," DOJ's Dreiband argued in a statement.
Elsewhere, liberals in places like Kansas City, Missouri, seem intent on getting the administration's attention with ridiculous monitoring measures like detailed registries on anyone who enters a church. Supposedly, the mayor's new 10/10/10 rule is meant to keep tabs on non-essential businesses and other entities that open to the public. But some Christians are crying foul, since -- conveniently -- other gathering places, like grocery stores, are exempt. It's just another power-grab in a long list of battles this administration will keep on fighting.
As frustrating as these flashpoints might be, they're another example of just how much Americans have to be grateful for. Six years ago, our government wouldn't be defending these churches -- they'd be teaming up against them! Now, under just three years of this administration, we've seen a dramatic change in how freedom is regarded in this country. But this progress isn't etched in stone. All it takes is one election for everything to go back to the way it was -- when Americans were punished for their faith or excluded from the public square, rather than welcomed and protected by our government. Even now, with all of the uncertainty swirling around us, we need to stay focused on what's at stake. And what's at stake -- for believers -- is everything.
For more on this administration's legacy on religious freedom, check out my new Washington Times op-ed on the three-year anniversary of the president's executive order.