On Thursday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order promoting religious freedom, weakening the Johnson amendment, and providing relief for religious objectors to Obamacare’s preventive services mandate. He signed the order on the National Day of Prayer.
The order is Trump’s first step toward keeping his campaign promises on religious freedom, and it already has drawn harsh criticism from Democrats and LGBT groups. The ACLU is expected to sue the administration over it.
Here are five things to know about the order — what it does do, and what it doesn’t.
1. Declare the importance of religious liberty.
In a document outlining the order, the White House listed three objectives, and the first was to declare “that it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”
— Steve Herman (@W7VOA) May 4, 2017
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore,” President Trump declared in his remarks while signing the order. “And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination. Never, ever.”
The president added, “America has a rich tradition of social change beginning in our pews and our pulpits. We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church and progress from the pew.”
“America has a rich tradition of social change beginning in our pews and our pulpits,” Trump said in front of an audience of religious leaders. “We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church and progress from the pew.”
For this reason, Trump’s order did not stop at declaring support for religious liberty.
2. Weaken the Johnson amendment.
According to the White House, the executive order also “directs the IRS to exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidates from the pulpit.”
The 1954 amendment, sponsored by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, stipulates that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”
The IRS website explains that this rules out “contributions to political campaign funds or statements of position made on behalf of the organization” for or against any candidate.
Trump framed loosening these strictures as a free speech issue. “Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or synagogue or any other house of worship,” the president declared. “We are giving our churches their voices back and we are giving them back in the highest form.”
3. Relief for religious objectors.
In addition to declaring the importance of religious liberty and undercutting the Johnson amendment, Trump’s order extends concrete relief to religious objectors to a mandate under President Obama’s signature health care law.
Specifically, the White House announced that the order grants “regulatory relief” to those objecting to Obamacare’s preventive services mandate on religious grounds, “a position supported by the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby.”
That 2014 decision, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, ruled that closely held corporations fell under the protection of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and therefore Obama’s HHS mandate could not force Hobby Lobby Stores to provide specific types of contraception which the store considered abortifacients.
Many conservatives would say expanding this rule is common sense. Many groups consider forms of contraception mandated by Obama’s HHS to effectively cause abortions, and therefore object to them on religious grounds. The Supreme Court protected Hobby Lobby from the mandate, so other objectors should also have the same liberty.
4. Backlash, from LGBT groups and others.
Backlash started before Trump signed the order. LGBT activists gathered in Washington, D.C.’s Lafayette Park Wednesday afternoon, after news broke that Trump would sign the order. The activists argued it would enable anti-LGBT discrimination. Groups like the Human Rights Campaign, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Center for American Progress attended, as did Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).
On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened to sue President Trump if he “signs an executive order that attempts to provide a license to discriminate against women or LGBT people.” After the signing, the group announced forthcoming litigation.
“The actions taken today are a broadside to our country’s long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero declared. He accused Trump and Republican leadership of “using religion as a wedge to further divide the country and permit discrimination.”
“President Trump’s efforts to promote religious freedom are thinly-veiled efforts to unleash his conservative religious base into the political arena while also using religion to discriminate,” Romero added. “It’s a dual dose of pandering to a base and denying reproductive care.”
The LGBT backlash started in February, when The Nation published a leaked copy of Trump’s original order. After an internal push, instigated by First Daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, the order was delayed until this month, and altered to remove any language which could be considered discriminatory against LGBT people.
Not all churches and religious organizations want to see the Johnson amendment weakened. Last month, a group of 99 church groups sent a letter urging against such a course. “The charitable sector, particularly houses of worship, should not become another cog in a political machine or another loophole in campaign finance laws,” the group wrote.
Democratic Senators Ron Wyden (Ore.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) sent a similar letter to GOP leaders on Wednesday. “Proposals to weaken the prohibition on political campaign activity by charities will effectively lead to the elimination of our nation’s campaign finance laws,” they warned.
5. The order does not go far enough.
The liberal “discrimination” line of attack against religious freedom is quite misleading, and it has no place in debates about this order. Indeed, the bill arguably does not go far enough in promoting religious freedom.
A key issue in this debate is a professional’s right to believe and act according to his or her deeply held religious convictions on sexual ethics. Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzman was fined for refusing to arrange flowers for a same-sex wedding. Oregon bakery owners Aaron and Melissa Klein were ripped of their life savings and forced to go out of business for declining to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
And the issue doesn’t stop with florists and bakers — last month the ACLU sued a Sacramento Catholic hospital, even after the hospital helped a patient find another hospital at which to have his hysterectomy. The ACLU’s lawsuit makes it clear that this debate isn’t about access — it’s about forcing people to violate their religious convictions.
Perhaps weakening the Johnson amendment might be a good thing, perhaps not. There are good arguments that churches should not get involved in politics, but that believers should allow their faith to guide them in public service in other ways. Free speech is a core American value, but it is reasonable to have limits on tax-exempt organizations.
The key problem with this executive order isn’t that it does too much, but that it does too little. It is little more than a declaration that America supports religious freedom, that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Hobby Lobby should be followed, and that the IRS should not prosecute churches for endorsing political candidates.
The key issue of protecting religious liberty in business arrangements — for Christians as well as Muslims — is far more important than these declarations.
It may come as a shock, but Americans generally favor religious freedom even on heated LGBT issues. A recent Marist poll found that 80 percent of Americans support a doctor’s right to opt out of providing sex-change surgery, and 62 percent said employers should be able to opt out of providing coverage for sex-change surgeries.
President Trump is right to champion religious liberty, and this executive order is indeed a good first step, but it leaves much to be desired.
Click “Load More” to watch the video of Trump signing the order and making his statement.