Religious liberty advocates give presidential order mixed reviews
Hopeful Trump supporters left the White House with fewer conscience protections than they had hoped for
President Donald Trump signed an executive order today calling on federal agencies to operate with respect to Americans’ freedoms of speech and religion. In a White House Rose Garden ceremony, Trump combined the traditional signing of the National Day of Prayer proclamation with the executive order.
The president called faith leaders in the audience to the podium as he signed the order. But not all of them offered unbridled support. Religious liberty advocates who have waited since Trump’s inauguration for the promised relief gave the order mixed reviews.
“President Trump deserves credit for his order,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at The Becket Fund. “And now the agencies and government lawyers need to follow through to finally give up this futile crusade.”
The order emphasizes three areas of concern: respecting religious and political speech, conscience protections, and religious liberty guidance.
The first provision is an attempt to fulfill Trump’s campaign pledge to repeal the Johnson Amendment—something only Congress can do. It calls on the Internal Revenue Service to refrain from taking adverse action against “individual, house of worship, or other religious organizations” on the basis of speech that could be deemed political.
The 1954 Johnson Amendment regulates political activism on the part of religious non-profit organizations by threatening the withdrawal of a violator’s tax-exempt status. Usually interpreted as a prohibition against political endorsements from the pulpit, the law is rarely applied.
Gregory Baylor, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, said years of abuse by the IRS gives little hope for the agency’s ability to introspectively self-regulate in accordance with Trump’s order. Only a legislative solution like the Free Speech Fairness Act would permanently solve the problem, he said.
But Rienzi said the conscience provisions protecting religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, one of Becket’s clients, are long overdue. The Catholic nuns fought a years-long battle against the Obama administration’s demand the ministry pay for contraceptives and abortifacient drugs in its healthcare plan. The Justice Department late last month asked for more time to come up with rules that comply with suggestions made by the U.S. Supreme Court to solve the dispute. A final solution is still pending.
“No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith,” Trump said, calling representatives from the charity to join him at the podium.
A third section of the executive order gives “religious liberty guidance” to all agencies, informing them of the conscience protections provided under federal law. Mike Berry, a director of military affairs with First Liberty Institute, said the order would provide much-needed relief for servicemen and women “forced to hide their faith or face punishment at the highest levels of command.”
Still, many advocates expressed disappointment in the executive order. Baylor called it “disappointingly vague, especially given the long existence of an obvious means of solving the problem: crafting an exemption that protects all those who sincerely object on religious and moral grounds so that they can continue to serve their communities and the most vulnerable among them.”
Three months ago, administration officials leaked a more comprehensive religious liberty executive order offering some of those exemptions, as well as specific relief from “adverse action” against federal employees and contractors who speak or act in accordance with their beliefs. Gay rights groups disparaged it as providing legal cover for discrimination, and Trump never signed it. The president’s promises of administrative relief garnered the support of pastors and religious liberty advocates during his campaign—many of whom were in the audience for today’s signing. They may also have been among those most disappointed by the president’s inaction in February on the more extensive religious liberty executive order. Trump acknowledged the delay in his remarks.
“It was looking like you’d never get here, folks. But you got here,” Trump told the crowd, who gave him a standing ovation.
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