The eagerly anticipated presidential executive order to make it easier for churches and pastors to participate in election campaigns falls short of what many religious conservatives, many of whom supported Donald Trump for president, hoped for. Mr. Trump signed it with considerable Rose Garden ruffles and flourishes, but many of his friends called it “disappointingly vague” or at best “just the first bite at the apple, not the last.”
The scope of the order was considerably narrower than in a draft version in February that was leaked to the media (perhaps by his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law Jared Kushner), to water it down if not derail it. The executive order that emerged appeared to have taken on considerable water. It was greeted on the left not with angst and umbrage, but with relief and derision. The American Civil Liberties Union dismissed it as “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”
Mr. Trump promised on the campaign stump last year that he would “totally destroy” the so-called Johnson Amendment, named for its sponsor Lyndon B. Johnson when he was the Senate majority leader, that bars churches, pastors and others of tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates for office at the risk of losing tax exemptions as guaranteed in the First Amendment.
“For too long,” President Trump told a diverse group of religious figures in the Rose Garden, “the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.” He told the assembled clerics that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say . No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
Though the law unsettles some clerics, it is seldom enforced, and many black churches have simply ignored it, even inviting candidates, usually liberal Democrats, to speak from their pulpits. President Trump further directed his administration to consider changes to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandates that employers, such as Hobby Lobby and hospitals operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor, find objectionable.
The lukewarm reception to the executive order on the right can be traced less to what was included than to what was not. Missing from Thursday’s executive order was a provision in the February draft exempting small-business owners, religious organizations, schools and others to federal laws dealing with abortion rights and gay and lesbian rights.
There is nothing in the order to enable adoption agencies to decline to offer adoptions to same-sex couples. There is no protection for religiously affiliated health-care providers that cannot as a matter of conscience provide access to abortion, or to provide same-sex rest rooms. U.S. Attorney Gen. Jeff Sessions is directed now to draw guidelines for protecting religious liberties consistent with current law.
However, as one religious leader said on Thursday, “it’s an important first step.” But it’s only a first step.
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