Trump’s “Religious Freedom” Executive Order: A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing

Today's executive order didn't specifically mention LGBT people, but it's still designed to harm us.

Today’s executive order by Trump is a tremendous danger to the LGBT community, to women’s rights and reproductive rights. It is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Although the executive order didn’t outline overt discrimination against the LGBT community, make no mistake: It did tremendous damage. Today the President weakened our constitutional divide between church and state.

The executive order signed today begins the process to set aside what was known as the Johnson Amendment. Named after President Johnson, this important law kept churches and synagogues from endorsing political candidates or risk losing their non-profit status. But today’s order will allow churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, and faith community to freely endorse and organize for political candidates without fear of losing their tax exemptions.

Religious institutions have always been able to speak about issues from the pulpit. Churches and synagogues, mosques, and faith communities can and do use up to 10% of their budgets on lobbying their elected officials about public policy. Under the Johnson Amendment they cannot endorse political candidates as an institution, nor can religious leaders endorse candidates from the pulpit, nor can churches organize their parishioners for a particular candidate. If they do, they can lose their tax-exempt status by the IRS. Today’s order began the process to change that.

For LGBT people this means that fundamentalist religions that are anti-gay are further empowered to wield their hateful theology—but this time with politicians. This executive order strengthens the hand of anti-gay voters. No doubt this will translate into electing officials who will not only be tone deaf to the cause of equality for the LGBT community but those who are hostile to the LGBT community. Many of these voters are the base of the GOP. Under the guise of “religious liberty” if you can’t win fairly change the rules. And that is what the president has done. Ultimately the Johnson Amendment has to be voted on in Congress but today’s action weakens the IRS from prosecuting those who violate the law.

In California we who lived through the nightmare of Prop 8 that took away the right to marry from LGBT Californians got a taste of what happens when churches spend their resources against LGBT people. The Catholic and Mormon churches funneled tens of millions of dollars into their campaign of hate toward the LGBT community during that battle. And lawsuits were brought against the Mormon Church because of the amount of money they spent in excess of the current rule. But imagine now the same power of those churches to give money to their candidates from church coffers. Our electoral system is already awash in corruption and money and this order will only make it worse.

Today’s executive order also strengthens the ability of religious organizations to refuse to provide health insurance benefits to employees if it conflicts with their religious beliefs. Thus Catholic nuns who run hospitals can refuse to provide reproductive care in their insurance to its hospital employees or to the patients in their hospitals. Or a food bank run by a Christian fundamentalist organization can refuse to fund the insurance for mental health services for its LGBT employees, or PrEP for those with HIV, or gender reassignment surgery, or addiction recovery. In other word, private health decisions between an individual and their medical team will be affected by the religious views of their employer. The Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that a privately held company could do this and today’s actions extend that ruling.

These may not at first glance seem like an attack on the LGBT community. But this executive order is a broad side against the separation of church and state and gives religious institutions a greater hand in shaping elections, elected officials and in imposing their religious views on others. Our Constitution is clear about the separation of church and state. Our Constitution prevents the establishment or privileging of any one religion over another. The wall of separation makes clear two important ideas: It keeps our government from establishing a state religion and also it gives Americans the freedom from any religion at all. Today’s actions will favor certain religious beliefs over others.

I speak as a religious leader, a rabbi: The strength of America has been that wall of separation between religion and our democracy. That separation has enabled religious minorities and other minorities to thrive and has prevented an American theocracy. Today’s action by the president bashed a large hole in that wall of separation. Today’s executive order will allow churches, synagogues, temples, mosques, and faith communities to endorse candidates and to coerce their members into voting for particular candidates all the while enjoying tax free benefits.

Many religious groups are appalled at today’s actions by the President. My faith tradition, Reform Judaism, has a long tradition of social action and social justice but we are also clear that synagogues should not be in the business of politics helping to elect candidates. There are many other Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Baha’i, and other faith communities who agree with this idea.

Those of us who care deeply about human rights and civil rights and equality for all under the law must work to strengthen the wall of separation between religious institutions and our government. For LGBT people and our allies and women right’s advocates, todays signed order means we have to work harder and smarter to organize and work for our equality and for justice in our time. Let’s get to work.

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is the founding rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami, in West Hollywood, and the past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the oldest and largest rabbinical organization in North America.
@deniseeger