President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order that would protect tax-exempt churches from federal investigation for participating in politics, but the directive stopped well short of what many expected from the Republican administration.
While the executive order also allows religious organizations to refuse to cover contraceptives in employee insurance plans, it stops short of what some feared, or hoped, was coming. In fact, the order was so mild, a top Georgia gay rights organization canceled a planned rally to oppose it, saying Trump’s order was not explicitly anti-LGBT.
The order — which Trump formally unveiled in a Rose Garden ceremony with Christian leaders — also offers unspecified “regulatory relief” for religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, already scaled back by the courts, that required contraception services as part of health plans, the officials said.
Tom Price, the former Georgia congressman now serving as Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services, said his agency would work quickly to implement Trump's order.
“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,” Price said.
Alveda King, who endorsed Trump and is a niece of Martin Luther King Jr., received one of the pens Trump used to sign the order. Price and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, now also a member of Trump's cabinet, were also in the audience
The Washington Post reported that Trump said the order prevents the government from using the “state as a weapon against people of faith.” He later told the religious leaders gathered for the event that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say … No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
It’s never been illegal for pastors, or rabbis or imams to endorse political candidates or tell congregants how to vote, but their churches, temples and mosques could be stripped of their tax-exempt status for doing so.
Trump’s order was seen as much less impactful than a February draft that included a provision that could have let federal contractors discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith. Civil libertarians and gay rights groups had promised lawsuits.The order released Thursday instead included a blanket statement that “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”
Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality, said the reality of Thursday’s order was much less concerning than expected.
“We were relieved to see there was nothing explicitly anti-LGBT in this executive order,” Graham said. “However, we still have some great concerns about the broad statements around doing everything in the government’s power to protect religious liberty.”
While Trump’s action was applauded by many in the Rose Garden, some religious groups criticized him for what they characterized as a vague directive that didn’t live up to his campaign rhetoric.
“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion and to ensure that all Americans — no matter where they live or what their occupation is — enjoy the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions without fear of government punishment,” said Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the pro-faith group Alliance Defending Freedom.
As a candidate and shortly after taking office, Trump declared he would “totally destroy” what’s known as the Johnson Amendment, a six-decade-old ban on churches and other tax-exempt organizations supporting political candidates.
The order instead directs the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion of the prohibition.” Such a direction could be subject to legal challenge and would not necessarily extend beyond a Trump presidency.
The provision is written in the tax code and would require an act of Congress to repeal fully.
Georgia state Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, said Trump's order is a good first step.
“Religious conservatives ought to be grateful that President Trump clearly understands that there are issues with respect to the faith community, in this case being able to exercise certain fundamental rights,” he said. “You certainly don’t surrender your right to participate in the political process because you’re a faith-based organization.”
In the end, however, an executive order only goes so far. It takes legislation to enact real change, McKoon said.
“We’re going to need the same legislative push on this issue from the president that we’ve seen on health reform and tax reform,” he said.
Violations of the Johnson Amendment are rarely pursued by the IRS, but evangelicals say it has been used selectively against them, preventing Christian leaders from speaking freely in church.
The amendment is named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced it in the Senate in 1954, nine years before he became president.
The provision applies to all tax-exempt organizations, including many colleges and foundations.
“President Trump’s executive order removes a sword of Damocles that has hung over the faith community for decades by administratively repealing the Johnson Amendment and restoring the right to political speech by pastors, churches and ministries,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a leading advocate of repealing the prohibition, said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe, derided the Johnson amendment Thursday in a speech before the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
“This amendment is an accident in our nation’s history,” Hice said, calling it “an attempt to get back (at) the opposition to a legislator.”
For 60 years, Hice said, the Johnson Amendment has been used “as a bully stick to intimidate churches and charitable organizations into silence. Most of us are not aware of the selfish motive behind this amendment.”
Trump’s religious liberties order was aimed at a key part of his base. Exit polls in November showed Trump defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 80 percent to 16 percent among white evangelical Christians.
Conservative Christian churches have become increasingly concerned that the federal government could come after their tax-exempt status if they profess opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage. But some pastors have endorsed the Johnson amendment, arguing it protects what is supposed to be a spiritual haven from the pernicious intrusion of politics.
The Washington Post contributed to this report.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com