President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that effectively gives churches license to be more involved in politics because, the order says, “It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.”
A senior White House official revealed aspects of the order on a press call with reporters on Wednesday night:
The order weakens the Johnson Amendment, passed in 1954, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from engaging in political activity like endorsing and campaigning for candidates. The IRS will have “maximum enforcement discretion” to decide whether or not to enforce that law.
It directs the Department of the Treasury (which the IRS is part of) to “not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective”:
“This financial threat against the faith community is over,” Trump said in a speech at the White House before the signing.
Signing Thursday’s executive order fulfills Trump’s promise to the religious right that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment.
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us,” he told religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
The White House official told reporters last night that it also overrules the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that employers include coverage of birth control in employee health insurance plans, allowing organizations to object on religious grounds, serving as an extension of the Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores.
The text of the order released Thursday, however, is less decisive—it says that the Secretaries of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury “shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate”:
It also contains a broad order for the Department of Justice to issue guidances that interpret federal law as favoring “religious liberty”:
Trump signed the order during events planned for the National Day of Prayer, during which Christian leaders were invited to join the president at the White House.
It’s not the order that was expected today. The draft of another order that would have repealed anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ Americans and anyone perceived as having sex outside heterosexual marriage has been circulating since February.
That leaked draft of that order showed that it would allow federal employees and contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ Americans and single women on the basis of religious belief in the interest of protecting “religious liberty.”
Update, 12:34 PM: The ACLU called the order part of the administration’s “thinly-veiled efforts to unleash his conservative religious base into the political arena while also using religion to discriminate.” The group said they intend to challenge the order in court.
Update, 2:43 PM: This post has been updated to reflect the text of the executive order.