As a gaggle of religious leaders stood behind him for National Prayer Day, Donald Trump signed an executive order that did two separate things in the name of giving more freedom to religious people. First, Trump wanted to make it easier for churches and other faith-based organizations to explicitly endorse politicians. Second, he moved to allow companies to deny employees access to contraception on religious grounds.
"Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding, and the soul of our nation," Trump said in the Rose Garden on Thursday. "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore."
Oddly, "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," as the order is titled, was a relief for LGBTQ rights advocates. In February, a draft of an order centered on religious freedom was leaked to the Nation, and it appeared to be a national version of the Religious Freedom Act that Vice President Mike Pence passed back when he was governor of Indiana and eventually had to revise due to massive protest. Leading up to today, liberals were acting like the impending order was going to throw us into a Handmaid's Tale–level dystopia in which gay people were barred from employment or eating at restaurants.
But what Trump signed was so much less severe than that draft that many conservatives seem kind of pissed off about it. The final version mostly affirms the concept of religious freedom, makes platitudes about the freedom of political speech, and instructs the Department of the Treasury (i.e. the IRS) not to punish religious people or institutions for their beliefs.
"While there is no one single reason why Donald Trump won the presidency, this much I do know: If Evangelical voters had not turned out in mass numbers, he would be sitting in New York right now plotting the comeback of Trump Steaks," David French wrote in the National Review. "It's time for those Evangelical leaders who jumped on the Trump Train, the ones who are now oh-so-close to that coveted 'room where it happens,' to speak with a single, united voice. Tell the president that the nation's first liberty demands more respect—and more protection—than the dangerous nothingness of this executive order." French used less flowery language on Twitter, where he called the order "weaksauce."
Rick Garnett is a law professor and the director of the Notre Dame Program on Church, State, and Society. He told me that the order was a long overdue signal by the Trump administration that it was going to craft more specific polices with regards to the Supreme Court's landmark Hobby Lobby case. In 2014, justices ruled that the craft store chain's religious owners did not have to provide health insurance that included birth control to people who work there, providing a rationale by which similar companies could dodge a requirement of the Affordable Care Act.
Still, Garnett stopped short of saying that the order was a win for social conservatives and religious types. "In terms of specifics, however, the order does little and does not address a number of pressing and important questions," he told me. "Those who were preemptively outraged about the executive order appear to have been incensed over very little."
The order also instructs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to provide guidance to agencies on how to interpret the concept of religious liberty, which Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement is like letting a "fox into the hen house," given Sessions's bleak record on civil rights.
For instance, she claims, he could tell the Department of Health and Human Services to roll back hospital visits for same-sex couples, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development to roll back fair housing requirements for LGBTQ people, or workers at agencies like the Social Security Administration to not process survivor benefits for gay couples if they have a religious objection.
David Vance, spokesperson for the good government group Common Cause, says that his biggest concern is how the order will affect campaign finance rules. He's worried that the section telling the IRS to go easy on churches and religious institutions that endorse political candidates could lead to the line between political organization and charities disappearing entirely.
His interpretation is that the order will allow big-money donors to funnel their money through nakedly political charities and religious groups while getting a tax deduction for it. Although it was signed under the guise of "religious freedom," Vance says that it has little to nothing to do with that.
"The order itself may not be all that much in terms of its text but if you are an agency that has been badgered, harassed, and had your budget slashed by Congress like the IRS in recent years, it sends a pretty clear message to steer clear of enforcing the law," he told me.
Like many of Trump's orders, it was a little more toothless than its announcement made it seem. At bottom, it simply instructs various agencies to go easier on religious institutions—as French noted, it doesn't remove regulations restricting the political activities of churches or those requiring insurance plans to provide contraception coverage.
Shortly after it was signed, ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said the order would use religion to discriminate, and that his organization would be suing Trump over it. By late afternoon, though, it seems like the organization had changed its tune, possibly after reading it again.
"Today's executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome," it said in a statement late Thursday. "After careful review of the order's text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process."
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