Little Sisters of the Poor approve Trump order on religion

The Little Sisters of the Poor, the order of Catholic nuns that has operated a nursing home in Baltimore since 1869, is celebrating an executive order President Donald Trump signed Thursday promising to offer "regulatory relief" to groups with religious objections to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

Trump asked for applause for several Little Sisters before he signed the order, assuring them that "your long ordeal will soon be over."

"With this executive order we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty, and we are proudly re-affirming America's leadership role as a nation that protects religious freedom for everyone," he said.

The nuns and other nonprofit religious organizations that object to the contraceptive mandate in Obamacare for religious reasons are parties to a long-standing lawsuit against the Obama administration.

The administration offered the groups an accommodation that would have transferred to a third party all responsibility for providing insurance coverage for contraception, but the groups argued they would still be providing the coverage, if less directly.

The U.S. Supreme Court remanded the case to appeals courts, directing the administration and the organizations to work out a compromise.

Trump's order includes language that says the executive branch "will honor and enforce" existing laws. It instructs the Department of Justice to "issue guidance" on existing law and directs the secretaries of the the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services to "consider issuing amended regulations" to "address conscience-based objections" to the contraception mandate.

He said he was "directing the Department of Justice to develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans. There are more than 50 religious Americans and groups [who] sued the previous ... administration for violating their religious freedom."

"We know all too well the attacks against the Little Sisters of the Poor," he said, "incredible nuns who care for the sick, the elderly, and the forgotten."

Some conservative critics said the order fell short of fulfilling Trump's campaign vow to protect Americans' rights to religious liberty.

Michael Farris, president and general counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Texas-based agency that handles religious liberty cases, said the order, while well-meaning, included "vague instructions to federal agencies [that] simply leaves them wiggle room" to ignore the action.

But Little Sisters Mother Provincial Mother Loraine Maguire, who stood beside Trump during the signing ceremony, issued a statement expressing the religious order's support.

"Today we are grateful for the President's order and look forward to the agencies giving us an exemption so that we can continue caring for the elderly poor and dying as if they were Christ himself without the fear of government punishment," it read.

Issued on the National Day of Prayer, the order also asks the IRS to soften its enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that bars churches and tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates.