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Trump's Executive Order On Religious Liberty Is A Big Disappointment

Trump's Executive Order On Religious Liberty Is A Big Disappointment

By David Harsanyi
May 4, 2017

"The first priority of my administration will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty," the candidate Donald Trump claimed in a speech before the Iowa Faith and Family Coalition early in his campaign. Like many other promises we heard, this didn't turn out to be true.

Trump's instincts, history, and lifestyle made him, to say the very least, an unlikely champion of social conservative causes. So it was obviously a priority for the candidate to scatter his speeches with promises of religious liberty protections to woo evangelicals, who were obviously vital in helping him win the GOP primaries and the presidency.

When a draft of the religious freedom executive order leaked to the press earlier this year, it looked like the administration might provide comprehensive relief, not only protecting churches but Americans who sincerely operate on faith-based principles. The kind of people who lose their businesses when unelected authoritarians who sit on so-called Civil Rights Commissions persecute Americans for thought crimes.

In the order itself, however, the administration seems to have backed away from broader protections. This is reportedly the text. It focuses on three symbolic moves.

One, the administration promises to "vigorously promote religious liberty"; which, after years of the executive branch vigorously undermining it, is nice. But in practical terms it means little. President Obama also maintained that his administration, which did more to corrode protections in the First Amendment than any in memory, was a guardian of religious liberty.

Second, as the administration explained in its press release, it will direct the Internal Revenue Service "to exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidates on the pulpit."

Trump had previously promised to get "rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment." From my ideological perspective, that would be just fine. The Johnson Amendment -- a law forbidding religious organizations from engaging in political activities without losing their tax-exemption status -- is an attack on free expression that singles out people of faith. There is no rational reason for paying taxes to be a prerequisite to engage in political speech. The law was specifically created to inhibit debate by forcing churches to choose between expression and faith.

In practical terms, however, the law is almost never enforced and religious leaders have never been particularly worried about it. In fact, it's likely that most faith leaders are content avoiding political rhetoric in the pulpit, and having a legal excuse to do so insulates them from pressure. Those who want to politicize speech already ignore the law.

An executive order merely puts bureaucrats at the IRS in charge of dispensing justice at their pleasure. When a new administration comes along, it will be free to take the law as seriously as it wants. If you truly have a desire to get rid of the Johnson Amendment, it will take a legislative solution. Without a change to the law itself, any administration can come in and abuse this power in the future.

Third, the administration promises to provide "regulatory relief for religious objectors to Obamacare's burdensome preventative services mandate, a position supported by the Supreme Court's decision in Hobby Lobby."

It's about time those who have been sucked into Obamacare's unconstitutional requirements on contraception, the Little Sisters of the Poor, and so on are helped. That's something. But it does not repeal the HHS mandate. Why would Trump provide regulatory relief when he could offer a solid, comprehensive exemption that protects all Americans who run faith-based businesses? While the media will almost surely frame this as an anti-gay law, perhaps someone with access can ask the administration why it decided to abandon exemptions that were carved out in the draft -- and that the president consistently promised to the American people?

Then again, it's not all on Trump. Republicans were often critical of Obama for running a government through executive orders. The drawbacks of that kind of governance don't change simply because they won the presidency. For one, it can be an abuse of power. Mostly, though, it's ineffective, symbolic governance. Which is what we have here. Trump's executive order does little, and what little it does can be easily overturned.


Trump's Religious Liberty Order Doesn't Answer Most Evangelicals' Prayers
Prayer breakfast pledge to 'totally destroy' Johnson Amendment comes up shy; conscience exemptions from LGBT anti-discrimination rules missing.

MAY 4, 2017

In his biggest religious liberty push since taking office, President Donald Trump officially laid out in an executive order some of the protections he has promised faithful supporters for months. The move came on the same day that evangelical leaders gathered in Washington for the annual National Day of Prayer.

One problem: This is not the executive order many evangelicals had been praying for.

Gone are the exemptions for religious groups faced with accommodating LGBT antidiscrimination regulations that conflict with their faith convictions. Instead, the order--titled "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty"--extends political speech protections for pastors and religious organizations, aiming to let them to talk about politics without penalty. It also requests "regulatory relief" for religious groups, including evangelical universities, caught in a court battle over the Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate.

"I am signing today an executive order to defend the freedom of religion and speech in America, the freedoms that we wanted, the freedoms that you fought for so long," the president said in a Rose Garden ceremony. "The federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs."

Trump spoke most about the implications for the Johnson Amendment--legislation that has regulated nonprofits' political activity for six decades. "This financial threat against the faith community is over," he said "You're now in a position to say what you want to say. ... No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors."

While the White House's broad vision to "protect and vigorously promote religious liberty" holds promise for people of faith, it lacks some of the specific conscience safeguards many conservative Christians wanted to see.

"Religious conservatives will take comfort from the generally positive attitude toward their religious liberty claims. But in its operative effects, this nowhere goes out on a limb for them," said Thomas Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis. "The issues concerning LGBT/religious-liberty conflicts remain, and this gives little indication Trump will go out on a limb on those."

Trump's promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment excited some of his closest evangelical allies like Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins. Yet, according to surveys, the majority of evangelicals do not see this issue as a priority, or even on their agenda. Most have major concerns about bringing more politics into their churches.

Earlier this year, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) reported in its monthly Evangelical Leaders Survey that 90 percent of its board of directors, including the leaders of major denominations and ministries, oppose using the pulpit for political endorsements. Other surveys show that nearly 3 in 4 evangelicals are also against it.

"When it comes to challenges to religious liberty, the Johnson Amendment is just about the least important issue I can think of," said John Inazu, a professor at Washington University School of Law.

"More important than whether pastors can speak politics is whether everyone can live their convictions in [the] public square," tweeted John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

An earlier draft of a religious liberty order, leaked in January, focused on balancing religious convictions with LGBT protections. By directing the attorney general to ensure all federal agencies comply with religious liberty protections, the order represents a promising move for evangelicals, said Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser and consultant.

"This is the single most important religious liberty action taken by the White House in a very long time," said Moore, who spent hours with Trump and his fellow faith advisers the night the order was drafted. Under the order, "conservative people of faith will feel very, very free that they won't have to set their conscience aside and be fearful of the law."

For Trump supporters waiting for the Johnson Amendment to be repealed, it's a well-timed victory. His executive order coincides with a congressional committee meeting on the amendment as well as his participation in the National Day of Prayer.

A strong majority of white evangelicals are pleased with Trump's performance as president so far, and dozens of evangelical leaders, including advisers Robert Jeffress and Paula White, gathered at the White House for a dinner with Trump and vice president Mike Pence Wednesday night. The ceremony at the White House featured a welcome by White; prayer by Jack Graham, Cardinal Donald Wuerl; and Rabbi Marvin Hier; and music by singer Steven Curtis Chapman. (Both Pence and White quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14, which was the most-tweeted verse of Trump's election.)

Trump pledged to "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment when he spoke at another annual prayer gathering, the National Prayer Breakfast, in February. And during the campaign, he framed the move as a significant part of his religious liberty agenda, saying:

... My greatest contribution to Christianity--and other religions--is to allow you, when you talk religious liberty, to go and speak openly, and if you like somebody or want somebody to represent you, you should have the right to do it.

But the victory may be mostly symbolic. Legal experts question the impact of Trump's order, which falls short of the promised repeal. It doesn't specifically allow for pastor endorsements, as the president implied. The order requests the Treasury Department not deny any "tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit" to groups and leaders for speaking about "moral or political issues from a religious perspective."

You can read the full story here: http://tinyurl.com/kwffgaj

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