Jewish Groups Warn Trump's 'Religious Liberty' Order Weakens Separation of Church and State

Trump's order allows tax-exempt religious institutions to be more politically active

US President Donald Trump showing the "Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” in the Rose Garden of the White House, May 4, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP

Jewish religious leaders voiced their opposition Thursday to U.S. President Donald Trump’s new executive order that weakens enforcement of a tax code that prohibits religious institutions from endorsing political candidates.

“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” said Trump as he signed the executive order concerning the Johnson Amendment, which prevented nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

Following the release of earlier drafts of the religious-liberty executive order, which offers protection for organizations that refuse services based on religious beliefs, many feared the order would lead to discrimination against individuals from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.

While the final version of the executive order turned out to be tamer and omitted a section on LGBT rights, it still drew criticism from Jewish organizations concerned with the erosion of the separation of church and state.

“If churches and other religious institutions read this order as an invitation to start politicking, they are mistaken,” said Anti-Defamation League Director Jonathan Greenblatt, after the executive order was signed.

“What the executive order will do, unfortunately, is politicize the pews. And as an organization committed to ensuring religious freedom for all people, we know that separation of church and state is designed to protect both. This order weakens the foundations of the wall and could seriously damage the integrity and independence of houses of worship.”

Condemnation of the executive order and opposition to the initiative comes from a wide range of religious leaders, including representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Catholic and Buddhist organizations.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, also voiced his concern. “The Johnson Amendment has been a vital safeguard for the integrity of American religious institutions and the political process by defending the separation of church and state. Speaking truth to power is a hallmark of religious life in the United States. Clergy and communities of faith already raise our voices loudly on issues of political and social concern. The prohibition against endorsing or opposing political candidates from our pulpits simply prevents groups from being simultaneously tax-exempt ministries and partisan political outfits. Blurring that line threatens the prophetic voices of religious groups and opens the door to political coercion of houses of worship.”

Interfaith Alliance Executive Director Rabbi Jack Moline also warned about the politicization of the clergy. “President Trump’s actions should not be allowed to stand,” he said. “Removing the legal sanctions for political endorsements by tax-exempt houses of worship will do more to compromise religious freedom than any action in recent memory. That minority of clergy – almost all from the religious right – who want to impose their private partisanship on their congregations will be emboldened to turn worship into campaign rallies. Government officials will feel free to violate the Establishment Clause by promoting their own religious beliefs in the performance of official duties.”

While Jewish organizations warn of further erosion of the separation of church and state, a 2016 Pew Research Center survey of churchgoers showed that 14 percent said they had heard their clergy speak directly in support of or against a specific candidate during the 2016 presidential election. Six percent said they heard support for Hillary Clinton, while 1 percent heard support for Donald Trump.

A similar number of churchgoers, 11 percent, said they heard religious leaders speak out against a candidate – including 7 percent who said their clergy expressed opposition to Trump, while 4 percent heard opposition to Clinton.

Some 99 religious organizations recently sent a petition to members of Congress calling on them to preserve the Johnson Amendment as is. The religious organizations, among them Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Federations of North America, Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, B’nai B’rith International and the Union for Reform Judaism, warned: “People of faith do not want partisan political fights infiltrating their houses of worship.

“Houses of worship are spaces for members of religious communities to come together, not be divided along political lines; faith ought to be a source of connection and community, not division and discord,” the petition stated. “Indeed, the vast majority of Americans do not want houses of worship to issue political endorsements. Particularly in today’s political climate, such endorsements would be highly divisive and would have a detrimental impact on civil discourse.”

However, one major Jewish organization, the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, the umbrella group for Orthodox congregations applauded the initiative. 

Orthodox Union Executive Director for Public Policy Nathan Diament, said  in a statement that “As a minority faith community in America, the Orthodox Jewish community depends upon robust legal protections for religious exercise. When these legal protections are weakened – as they were under the last administration – our community’s freedom is weakened. Thus, we are grateful that President Trump has made it clear that his administration will promote and protect the religious liberty of Americans of all faiths wherever possible. We look forward to working with the White House, Justice Department and others to implement the principles laid out in today’s executive order.”