Trump Signs Religious Liberty Order Granting Broad Exemptions

"We are giving our churches their voices back."

Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the ACLU that it will not pursue legal action over the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech.

Donald Trump celebrated National Day of Prayer by signing an executive order easing the ban on political endorsements by churches and religious groups.

“I am today directing the Justice Department to develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans,” Trump said of the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech. “We are giving our churches their voices back.”

US President Donald Trump signs an executive order on Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy after signing it in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, April 28, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

A current provision in the US federal tax code, known as the Johnson Amendment, mandates that churches can be investigated and lose their tax-exempt status if they directly support or oppose any political candidate. Easing or repealing that amendment would, of course, allow preachers to endorse anti-LGBT and anti-choice candidates. Viewed broadly enough it could also protect any private organization that believes marriage is the union of one man and one woman, gender is “objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics,” and that human life begins at conception.

Indeed, the order also directs federal agencies to exempt religious groups from providing birth control to employees, as required by the Affordable Care Act. The White House says the order was necessary to protect religious groups “persecuted by the Obama administration” such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, which faced stiff fines for refusing to cover contraception.

A draft of the order leaked in February was much broader, allowing “any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations” to protect religious freedom in a wide variety of circumstances, including “when providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with Federal, State or local governments.”

That leak sparked major backlash and, days later, the White House coincidentally announced federal LGBT protections would remain in place.

The ACLU has issued a statement indicating it will not file a suit against the new order

“President Trump’s prior assertion he wished to ’totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of fake news,” the group stated. “The directive to federal agencies to explore religious-based exemptions to healthcare does cue up a potential future battle but as of now the status quo has not changed.”

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.
@ItsDanAvery