President Trump Signs ‘Religious Liberty’ Executive Order

By Deepa Iyer May 04, 2017

Today (May 4), President Donald Trump signed an executive order entitled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” during a National Day of Prayer event. The order affirms the Constitutional right to religious freedom in the United States. But the Trump Administration’s plan to secure religious liberty are drawing criticism from faith leaders and civil, human and reproductive rights groups. While some applaud the executive order as a move toward protecting religious liberty, more than 1,000 clergy leaders signed a statement arguing that it opens the door to discrimination.

The executive order directs the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to use its discretion when enforcing the Johnson Amendment, a rule that was passed by Congress in 1954 to prohibit houses of worship and nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Supporters of the Johnson Amendment believe that it ensures a critical separation of the pulpit and politics. But President Trump has been a vocal opponent of it, claiming that he would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment and “allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

Although violations of the Johnson Amendment could lead to the loss of tax-exempt status, the IRS has rarely enforced the rule. National Public Radio reports that the IRS has only invoked the Johnson Amendment once, using it to revoke the tax-exempt status of a church that took out a full-page newspaper advertisement opposing former president Bill Clinton in 1992.

The executive order also directs the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and the Treasury to provide regulatory relief with respect to a mandate under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that requires employer health plans to cover no-cost contraception and access to preventative care. While houses of worship are exempted from this obligation, some religious schools, hospitals and companies have objected to the mandate.

Trump’s executive order sets up the likelihood that women who work with organizations that have faith-based objections to providing reproductive care will no longer have access to counseling, screening, breastfeeding support or contraception. Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement:

President Trump’s executive order discriminates against women and robs them of essential preventive care. Without health coverage of contraception under the ACA, countless women will lose their basic right to prevent pregnancy and plan when they have children.

The executive order also directs the attorney general to issue guidance that interprets religious liberty protections in federal laws. Advocates are concerned that the Department of Justice may interpret the executive order in a manner that prioritizes religious beliefs over the rights of LGBTQ communities. In a statement, Human Rights Campaign warns that the executive order could result in “an unprecedented expansion of religious exemptions affecting employment, services and programs.” 

It is likely that the Administration will soon face legal challenges to the executive order. The American Civil Liberties Union tweeted:

Others are questioning the sincerity of the statement President Trump made at the National Day of Prayer event today. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore. And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination. Never, ever,” he said.

People are using the hashtags #LicenseToDiscriminate and #TrumpForgetsMuslimBan on Twitter to question President Trump’s motives and point out that he conveniently put aside religious liberty when he signed two executive orders calling for a ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries.