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Trump eases political restrictions on churches with new executive order
The president signed a long-awaited executive order on religious freedom, but it is much more limited than the initial plan. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
President Donald Trump celebrated the National Day of Prayer Thursday by signing an executive order addressing key concerns of his conservative, religious supporters, some of whom say the action didn't go far enough.

In a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, he announced that the order would enable faith leaders to more freely endorse political candidates from the pulpit and instruct federal agencies not to penalize religious organizations that don't want to provide birth control in their health care plans.

The executive order does not change existing law. Instead, it directs agencies enforcing the related laws to refrain from interfering with houses of worship and other religiously affiliated organizations.

"No Americans should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith," Trump said.

Within an hour of Trump's remarks, the American Civil Liberties Union had threatened to sue the administration over the executive order, but the organization backed off its plan later in the day.

"What President Trump did today was merely provide a faux sop to religious conservatives and kick the can down the road on religious exemptions on reproductive health care services," Anthony Romero, ACLU's executive director, said in a statement.

Overall, the action was met with a mixed reaction, including among religious freedom advocates. Although many people praised the president's long-awaited action, others criticized the scope of the executive order which is much narrower than a draft that leaked in February and its possible consequences.

"This order appears to be largely a symbolic act, voicing concern for religious liberty but offering nothing to advance it. Worse, it is further evidence that President Trump wants churches to be vehicles for political campaigns," Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said in a statement.

Thursday's executive order does not address the relationship between religious freedom protections and LGBT nondiscrimination law a delicate balance that has been unsettled since the Supreme Court's legalized same-sex marriage in June 2015.

Religion and health care

Trump's new executive order seeks to relieve pressure on religious nonprofits that object to providing birth control coverage in employee health plans, a mandate enacted under the Obama administration. The president said he would encourage federal agencies to protect these groups and revisit related regulations.

The Affordable Care Act's contraception mandate has been at the center of controversy since it was enacted, leading to dozens of lawsuits from religious objectors. Most recently, Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that runs nursing homes for impoverished senior citizens, and other religious nonprofits appeared before the Supreme Court in the spring of 2016 to argue for an exemption to the ACA's mandate.

Justices unanimously decided to send the case back to the lower courts, asking the Obama administration to work with Little Sisters and others to resolve ongoing dispute over the birth control mandate.

On Thursday, Trump asked a Little Sisters of the Poor nun to stand by his side as he instructed federal agencies to resolve their concerns once and for all. He also acknowledged lawyers from The Becket Fund, the law firm that represents the nuns, and congratulated them on their religious freedom work.

"I could use some good lawyers, too," the president said.

In a press call following the Rose Garden event, Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said her organization was "heartened" by Trump's statement and the new executive order.

"For too long, religious groups like the Little Sisters have been threatened by the government for their faith," she said. Government agencies and lawyers should "follow Trump's lead" and provide a full exemption for faith-related nonprofits.

It is still unclear if the executive order will have a measurable impact on the ACA's contraception mandate. But people of faith who oppose birth control on religious grounds said they are pleased by the president's commitment to their cause.

"Today's executive order begins the process of alleviating the serious burden of the HHS mandate," Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement. "We will engage with the administration to ensure that adequate relief is provided to those with deeply held religious beliefs about some of the drugs, devices and surgical procedures that HHS has sought to require people of faith to facilitate."

The Johnson Amendment

For months, Trump has promised to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a tax code provision from the 1950s limiting political engagement by nonprofits, including houses of worship.

"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," he said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February.

The law, which prevents nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates, can't be eliminated by an executive order. But Trump can and did instruct government officials to overlook violations, which is already common.

Only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status for violating the Johnson amendment. "The Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, New York, lost its tax-exempt status after warning Christians against voting for Bill Clinton for president in 1992," The New York Times reported.

In this case as with the birth control mandate, Trump is stating his intention to protect faith communities, some of whom felt attacked during Barack Obama's time in office.

Although many high-profile conservative faith leaders have spoken out against the Johnson Amendment in recent years, only about one-third of most religious groups appears to oppose it, according to Pew Research Center.

Twenty-eight percent of Catholics, 37 percent of white evangelical Protestants and 33 percent of Protestants overall say churches should endorse candidates during elections, Pew reported.

Looking ahead

Trump's new executive order appears to be a nod to conservative religious supporters.

"Religious freedom is under attack today. I find it refreshing that a president is actually talking about religious liberty, one of our fundamental constitutional rights," said Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. "I look forward to continuing this fight and am grateful to know President Trump is solidly on our side."

However, some religious freedom advocates are disappointed that the executive order is not as broad as expected.

"During his campaign, President Trump stated that the first priority of his administration would be to preserve and protect religious liberty," Gregory Baylor, senior counsel of the Alliance Defending Freedom, said in a statement. "The current outline of the religious liberty executive order released by White House officials recalls those campaign promises but leaves them unfulfilled."

Russell Moore, a prominent evangelical pastor and president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted that more will need to be done to ensure the rights of people of faith.

"Grateful for executive order's affirmation of the need to protect religious freedom. Much, much more needed, especially from Congress," he said.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, shared a similar sentiment in his statement.

"President Trump's executive order is a good first step to protect religious freedom for all Americans. The strongest protections we can offer religious institutions is through the legislative process," he said.

Robert George, a professor of law and politics at Princeton University and a prominent religious freedom advocate, emerged as one of the harshest critics of the executive order, in spite of being a vocal supporter of religious freedom protections.

"The religious liberty executive order is meaningless. No substantive protections for conscience. A betrayal. Ivanka (Trump) and Jared (Kushner) won. We lost," he tweeted.
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