President Donald Trump signed his controversial “religious liberty” executive order during a much-publicized White House ceremony on Thursday, igniting what is sure to be an ever-intensified battle over the First Amendment.
“We are ending the attacks on your religious liberty,” Trump proclaimed before signing the order, going on to say that the U.S. will once again be definitively seen as a “nation that protects religious freedom for everyone.”
He also spoke about the need to change contentious IRS regulations that have been criticized as too restrictive of churches and non-profit organizations. During the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly pledged to overturn the so-called Johnson Amendment, a provision that bans non-profits, including churches, from endorsing political candidates.
It appears today’s order was at least a step in that direction, with the Associated Press reporting the following:
Trump is planning to sign an executive order asking the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” over the regulation, known as Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and nonprofits.
The order also promises “regulatory relief” for groups with religious objections to the preventive services requirement in the Affordable Care Act, according to a White House official. Those requirements include covering birth control and could apply to religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have moral objections to paying for contraception.
Some of the religious conscience protections that seemed to be in an earlier draft of the order — which was far more sweeping — didn’t make it into the final version. Either way, Trump played up the executive action during Thursday’s event as one that will uphold the spirit of the Constitution.
“We’re here today to defend the rights of all Americans, to honor our great constitution and to protect the sacred liberties given to us, not by any earthly power, but by our creator in heaven,” he said.
Reaction to the order has been swift and diverse. Mat Staver, founder of the conservative Liberty Counsel, praised Trump’s move.
“We commend President Trump for sending a message to Congress and the rest of America that religious freedom must be protected,” he said in a statement issued to Faithwire. “This is an appropriate way to commemorate the National Day of Prayer as our President commits to protect and promote religious freedom.”
And Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, president and CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters, agreed, saying in a separate statement that Trump “deserves praise” for his first steps toward helping protect religious liberty.
“There is much that is commendable in the executive order, even while there is much that is missing – and that I pray will be soon addressed,” he said. “Today’s action is a breath of fresh air and should be understood, I believe, as a first step toward righting the wrongs of recent years and reassuring people of faith that they are not second-class citizens.”
Others, though, took a starkly different view. The Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, accused trump of “exploiting the National Day of Prayer” and of trampling on religious freedom.
“Today, the president pandered to his far-right fundamentalist base, upending protections for houses of worship and allowing religion to be used as an excuse to deny women coverage for contraception and other preventive health care,” Lynn said. “Far from protecting religious freedom, this executive order guts that principle. Religious freedom does not mean the right to ignore laws that protect other people and our democracy.”
Read more about the debate that has surrounded the order here.
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