U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at what he called “historic steps to protect religious liberty” on Thursday, in a move that pleased his evangelical Christian supporters but has worried American Jews and others who worry about the separation of church and state and protection of religious minorities.
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Trump signed the order in the White House Rose Garden at a National Day of Prayer event. One of the religious leaders who recited prayers was Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Three days before, Hier lit a torch at the official Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem.
The order gives the IRS the discretion to refrain from enforcing the Johnson Amendment of 1954, which had prohibited charities and religious institutions that wanted to protect their tax-exempt status from being political players. It means that these organizations will be able to actively participate in political campaigns, adding muscle to their already-substantial political clout.
Before signing the order Trump told the religious leaders assembled outside the White House, “we will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” calling the threat of losing tax-exemption “a crippling financial punishment that is very very unfair.”
“This financial threat against the faith community is over,” he declared, telling the religious leaders assembled at the ceremony, “you are now in a position where you are allowed to say what you want to say ... no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
“We are giving our churches their voices back, we are giving them back in the highest form. We make clear the federal government will not penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs,” Trump said.
Evangelical Christians are already powerful in American politics, but this move will significantly increase their influence. A pastor in a megachurch could now, theoretically, tell a congregation of thousands — and, in some cases, a broadcast audience of millions — how to vote or invite candidates to the pulpit, and facilitate fundraising for candidates and other political initiatives.
To be sure, the change will also free Jewish rabbis or Muslim imams, as well as left-wing Christian leaders, to speak their mind on political issues. During the presidential election, many Reform and Conservative rabbis active in social justice causes found it difficult not to make an explicit call to vote for Hillary Clinton in the election in front of their congregations. In his remarks, Trump made a point of noting that African-American churches had been in the forefront of political social change in past decades and when he sat down to sign the order, said he was doing so in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who was audited by the IRS, though the charges of tax evasion had nothing to do with religious liberty.
But the worry that religious minorities have about the implications of inflated influence of conservative Christian churches expanding their political clout overshadows pleasure in liberal circles at the fact that they are also “liberated” when it comes to political speech. After a version of the draft of the executive order leaked in February, a number of rabbis signed on to a letter to the president expressing “deep concern” that the measure could become a “weapon to discriminate against broad swaths of our nation, including LGBTQ people, women, and children in foster care. We urge you to turn away from all proposals that would abuse religious freedom.”
Another key part of the executive order will allow employers who have religious objections to contraception to choose health plans for their workers that don’t include contraception coverage.
“No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith,” Trump said in the White House signing ceremony.
Under President Barack Obama, such coverage was required as part of the Affordable Care act, which was challenged in court cases by charities and companies that argued that they should be free to express their religious beliefs by refusing to do so. The most prominent case involved the Catholic order of nuns Little Sisters of the Poor. During the White House ceremony, Trump invited the nuns involved in the lawsuit and told them that their “long hard ordeal will soon be over” and told their lawyers to stand up for a round of applause, joking that “I could use some good lawyers, too.”
For those who wondered how evangelical Christian leaders, supposedly the guardians of morality, could have possible supported a thrice-married New York billionaire who made his name in casinos and was caught on tape bragging about grabbing women — today’s action provides much of the answer.
In his presidential campaign Trump wooed Christian audiences by promising to “get rid of” and “destroy” the “horrible Johnson Amendment.” He bemoaned what he called the fact that “religion’s voice has been taken away,” joking once that he figured “that’s one way I’m getting to heaven.
At the Republican national convention in July, Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s early evangelical supporters, told the crowd that if Trump was able to keep that promise, it would represent “a huge revolution for conservative Christians.”
Trump’s courtship of conservative evangelical Christian leaders was highly successful — Trump pulled in 81 percent of the evangelical vote, a higher percentage than Mitt Romney, John McCain, or even George W. Bush — an evangelical Christian himself.
Opponents worry that the language of the order will open the door for allowing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals by employers.
Legal opposition to the order is likely to come quickly. The American Civil Liberties Union has already said it is ready to go to court to challenge the “religious liberty” that some believe will make Americans too free to discriminate.
Idit Klein, executive director of Keshet, a Jewish LGBTQ advocacy group, called the order “a first strike against the separation of church and state, and undermining reproductive rights.”
Trump’s initiative, she said in a statement issued on Thursday, “opens the door to homophobic employers” who refuse to pay for medication that prevents HIV prevention medication “or even life-saving medications for HIV-positive employees, if the employer objects to a 'gay lifestyle.'”
“This executive order sets back years of hard-won progress and opens the door wide open to further attacks on our rights. Jewish tradition mandates that we protect the most vulnerable in our communities. Cloaking discrimination in the language of religious freedom violates this must fundamental value,” Klein said.