Every American should be totally alarmed by President Donald Trump’s so-called “religious liberty” executive order, particularly Christians and conservatives who have profound concerns over the tattered state of First Amendment freedoms.
Here’s why: the order does almost nothing to increase religious liberty, an issue I discuss in-depth in my new book, “Fault Line: How a Seismic Shift in Culture Is Threatening Free Speech and Shaping the Next Generation.” In fact, it’s the most vague and bizarre executive order in recent memory, appearing even more strange when juxtaposing its contents against Trump’s comments on Thursday before he unveiled the order.
“We are ending the attacks on your religious liberty,” Trump proclaimed to excited faith leaders who had gathered at the White House to see this supposedly historic moment unfold. The commander-in-chief even went so far as to say that the U.S. will once again be a “nation that protects religious freedom for everyone.”
This all sounded wonderful, but the document accomplishes absolutely nothing of substance.
There are no protections for wedding vendors who have landed in the crosshairs for saying their faith precludes them from participating in same-sex nuptials and no definitive contraceptive mandate provisions to protect businesses opposed to certain forms of birth control.
And perhaps most shocking, there’s seemingly nothing that offers any new guidance on the controversial Johnson Amendment (the IRS law that precludes tax-exempt nonprofits — including churches — from campaigning for or against political candidates).
Here’s why this is alarming: Trump has repeatedly pledged to overturn the Johnson Amendment. Furthermore, the ceremonial antics surrounding the unveiling of this order made it sound like America was about to turn the corner amid an ongoing battle over the clash between the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Apparently, not.
Trump seemingly positioned himself as a religious-freedom savior of sorts, yet delivered next to nothing to corroborate his self-handled coronation. And that’s potentially troubling because it means: he hasn’t read the order, or he has read it and decided to simply oversell it in hopes of duping his audience, or he doesn’t really care about the associated issues, or he’s simply confused over what social conservatives who held their noses and voted for him really want.
If we're giving Trump some grace, though, we must consider that perhaps this is somehow the first step to something greater and more profound that he plans to accomplish on the religious liberty front, though his framing of the order as a beacon of religious freedom simply doesn't mesh with what's actually in it — and that disconnect is troubling. Let's briefly explore what the order accomplishes.
Section One of the proclamation does say that the federal government will protect religious freedom, though the protections offered are pretty vague. It reads, in part, “Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.”
Then, we move on to Section Two and things get a bit more interesting, as this is the portion of the order that deals with the Johnson Amendment. Here, the order protects individuals and organizations that have spoken “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”
But the law already offers that protection; nonprofit organizations and churches simply can’t endorse or rail against candidates. It’s the latter fact that has riled evangelicals over the years, as they’ve argued that the Johnson Amendment unfairly curtails their free speech to endorse or reject candidates from the pulpit, yet the order doesn’t do anything to remedy that issue.
One could argue that it clarifies current law for pastors who might be too afraid to speak about political issues that are religious in nature (something that is allowed under the law) for fear of violating IRS regulations. But the order doesn’t really specify its intent, leading me to believe that the people who penned it are either confused about current law or simply want to trick Americans into thinking they’ve accomplished something profound when they really haven’t.
And brace yourself for Section Three, which deals with the contraceptive mandate and amounts to little more than a campaign pledge. For those who oppose the mandate, have no fear: The Trump administration will consider new regulations at some point in the future.
I’ll provide the text, since it’s so short: “The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.”
It’s remarkable that the administration would waste it’s time and resources on such a vapid order. And it’s even more astounding that anyone — based on the current text — could muster enough energy and motivation to praise Trump over it.
Perhaps the ACLU, which had been threatening all week to take Trump to court over the order, said it best when finally announcing that a lawsuit wouldn’t be necessary.
“We thought we'd have to sue Trump today. But it turned out the order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” the ACLU tweeted. “Trump’s assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.’”
The group continued, “The directive to explore religious-based exceptions to healthcare does cue up a potential future battle, but the status quo has not changed.”
Truth matters. And for anyone who is concerned over the state of religious freedom, the order should send a flashing, red signal and an obnoxiously loud alarm to warn that cautiousness is key. Sure, Trump has delivered on a Supreme Court justice as well as plenty of pro-life measures that should satisfy Christians and conservatives, alike. This order, though, is somewhat of an embarrassment that was sold as something worthy of getting giddy over. And that’s giving it perhaps more grace than it deserves.
If it's part of some grander plan to increase religious liberty and I'm somehow missing the markers, I'll be glad to be proven wrong. But for now, I'm scratching my head.