President Trump signed an executive order Thursday to make it easier for churches to participate in politics and to protect faith-based groups from being forced to pay for abortion services under Obamacare, proclaiming, “We are giving our churches their voices back.”
At a National Day of Prayer ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Mr. Trump signed the order directing the IRS not to “unfairly target” the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations who engage in political speech.
“The federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs,” Mr. Trump said.
While the action was long awaited on the right, some conservatives said they’re disappointed that it doesn’t go far enough.
The president’s order is aimed at easing an IRS provision that prohibits churches from directly opposing or endorsing political candidates. The action will direct the IRS to immediately “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden” of the so-called Johnson Amendment, a tax provision dating from 1954.
The directive also will allow nonprofit organizations to deny certain health coverage for religious reasons. It’s aimed at protecting Christian groups like Little Sisters of the Poor, who have waged a court battle against the government mandate under Obamacare, from being forced to pay for abortion services.
Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said his agency will use the order to “re-examine” Obamacare’s mandate on contraceptive services.
“We will be taking action in short order to follow the president’s instruction to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees,” Mr. Price said.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it would sue the administration by the end of the day to block the order from taking effect, calling the president’s action “a broadside to our country’s long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state.”
“President Trump’s efforts to promote religious freedom are thinly-veiled efforts to unleash his conservative religious base into the political arena while also using religion to discriminate,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “It’s a dual dose of pandering to a base and denying reproductive care. We will see Trump in court, again.”
As Mr. Trump spoke about the Little Sisters’ case, he even invited some of the nuns in the audience to join him on the stage.
“Your long ordeal will soon be over,” the president told the nuns.
When one of the sisters told Mr. Trump the court case has been going on for five years, the president asked her, “You had good lawyers?”
“Where are your lawyers?” the president asked, scanning the audience. “Stand up, c’mon, stand up. Do you mind if I use your lawyers? Good job.”
He added, “With this executive order, we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty.”
The Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover contraceptives at no cost to patients. After the Supreme Court ruled that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government created an accommodation for closely held, for-profit businesses that have a religious objection, which involves filling out a form to arrange for a third party to provide coverage instead.
But the Little Sisters and several other religious groups say the accommodation still forces them to be complicit in providing people with contraception against their religious beliefs.
The president devoted most of his comments to ending the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment, saying he was halting “a financial threat against the faith community.”
“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” the president said to thunderous applause from the audience of religious and conservative leaders, including Dr. Franklin Graham. “In America, we do not fear people speaking freely from the pulpit. We embrace it.”
Mr. Trump noted that the nation “has a rich tradition of social change beginning in our pews and in our pulpits.”
“Perhaps there is no greater example than the historic role of the African-American church as the agent for social progress, spurring our nation to greater justice and equality,” he said. “We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church, and progress from the pew.”
The Johnson Amendment is actually a law, championed by Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas when he ran for re-election. His target was not a church but a conservative nonprofit that advocated for the election of his opponent.
Johnson, then Senate minority leader, introducing an amendment to Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code on tax-exempt charitable organizations, specifying that they couldn’t be involved in partisan politics.
The measure wasn’t considered controversial in Congress; there is no record of any debate.
By administratively removing the Johnson Amendment, Faith & Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed said, the president’s order “removes a sword of Damocles that has hung over the faith community for decades.”
He said ending the Obamacare mandates that violate the religious faith of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other faith-based nonprofits “lifts a cloud of fear over people of faith and ensures they will no longer be subjected to litigation, harassment and persecution simply for expressing their religious beliefs.”
“This is just the first bite at the apple, not the last,” Mr. Reed said. We still support the full statutory repeal of the Johnson Amendment and Obamacare mandates, but this order is a giant step in the right direction in protecting the First Amendment rights of Christians and other Americans of conscience and faith.”
Some conservatives are expressing disappointment that the president’s action doesn’t go far enough to guarantee religious liberty protections.
Senior Counsel Gregory Baylor, senior counsel of the conservative Christian legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, said the executive order leaves Mr. Trump’s campaign promises “unfulfilled.” He argued that directing the IRS to use its discretion isn’t strong enough.
“Americans cannot rely on the discretion of IRS agents, some of whom have abused that discretion for years to silence pastors and intrude into America’s pulpits,” he said. “Nor does the outline do anything to prevent a future, hostile administration from wielding its power to penalize any church who dares exercise its constitutionally protected freedoms in a manner that displeases those in authority. A legislative problem like the Johnson Amendment demands a legislative solution.”
Mr. Baylor also said the order offers “no specific relief” to families such as the Donald and Ellen Vander Boon, owners of a meatpacking company in Michigan, who face action by the Department of Agriculture that could close their business. The government has threatened them with the loss of inspections over their placement of literature in an employee lunch room that expressed their opposition to same-sex marriage based on religious grounds.
He said the president’s pledge of regulatory relief on Obamacare is “disappointingly vague.”
And a government watchdog group, Public Citizen, warned that Mr. Trump’s action could lead to more “unaccountable” money influencing elections.
“This executive order may go down in history as the ‘Citizens United’ of church/state separation in the context of political spending,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “If carried out, the executive order would enable evangelical, social conservative and other churches to operate as dark money funnels — with even less disclosure and reporting required for social welfare organizations and trade associations.”
The event in the Rose Garden began with a guitar performance by Steven Curtis Chapman, a Christian music singer and social activist, who thanked Mr. Trump and sang two songs, including an acoustic version of The Lord’s Prayer.