A prominant national secular legal organization is demanding that the Trump White House put an end to the president's informal engagement with evangelical leaders on grounds that it violates federal law.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to senior White House officials last week, arguing that Trump's continued engagement with evangelical pastors and televangelists violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
The act, passed in 1972, was designed to ensure that advice from federal advisory committees are objective and accessible to the public.
"It is clear that the President's Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump Administration behind closed doors — without any sunlight for the public to understand how and why decisions are being made," the letter, written by AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser, reads. "We respectfully request that the Advisory Board cease meeting and providing advice to the President unless and until it fully complies with FACA, and that you produce to us certain documents relating to the Advisory Board."
The letter was sent just three days after the White House hosted about 100 evangelical leaders for a state-like dinner in which several leaders stood up and offered their praises of how the administration has quickly been able to progress a social conservative agenda and appoint conservative judges in the first year-and-a-half of the Trump presidency.
Although much has been reported on the dinner, what has received less news coverage are the several smaller gatherings of evangelical leaders for listening sessions with members of the White House staff since the early days of the administration.
Many of those who have visited the White House for these listening sessions have been evangelical leaders who were formally named to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign Evangelical Executive Advisory Committee. The committee ceased to exist in a formal fashion once Trump took over the White House. Since Trump took office, the number of evangelical leaders who have informally engaged with the administration far exceeds the 25 who were initially on the campaign committee.
Nonetheless, AU argues that the evangelical leaders have "provided formal advice and made recommendations to President Trump."
"The Advisory Board 'pays regular visits to the White House, which can start with policy briefings from West Wing staff and agency officials and end with impromptu visits to the Oval Office,'" the letter reads. "The Advisory Board has a 'pretty significant' hand in 'directing or affecting' administration policy."
As many of the evangelical meetings with the Trump White House have been held in a relatively private and unannounced fashion, AU maintains that all meetings of presidential advisory councils must be open to the public and public notice must be published in the Federal Register. AU also stresses that records, transcripts and meetings of the minutes must be kept and made available.
Robert Tuttle, a research professor of law and religion at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., disagreed with AU's assertion that the evangelical leaders' engagement with the Trump administration has violated law.
"I don't think that Trump is using the [evangelical leaders] to collect information or to provide advice to the administration about religious liberty or anything like that," Tuttle told The Christian Post. "Although the folks are getting preferential access and pretty grand treatment that you can compare to some other state visitors apparently, the group is not an advisory board in the same sense the religious groups that Bush and Obama organized were providing advice and counsel."
In May, Trump launched his version of the formal White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiative that will serve all faith communities.
Tuttle is a bit more cynical in his view about the impact that the evangelical leaders are actually having. He said that in order to really be considered an advisory committee, the leaders would need to be giving more specialized information to the administration rather than the members of the administration briefing the leaders on what is going on around the executive branch.
"I think that Trump does not have any interest in listening to the recommendations of these religious leaders. I think that their contact with him is purely to strengthen the perceived relationship with a particular part of the evangelical base, especially the megachurch, prosperity gospel group that Trump is most closely affiliated with," he argued. "When you look at many — not all — of the pastors in this group, that is where they come out of."
Although the Trump administration has acted in multiple ways to advance a social conservative agenda in various areas of public policy that conservative evangelical leaders have favored, Tuttle believes the influence of prominent conservative lobbying and legal groups are having the bigger impact.
"I don't think they are exercising any influence on his decisions. I think the Alliance Defending Freedom has the most access to the Department of Justice on actual policy matters relating to religious liberty and that is largely through the appointment of former members of ADF or Becket to significant positions in Justice or in the case of some onto courts," Tuttle said.
Tuttle added that AU will have to prove that the "leaders have given actionable advice" to federal agencies in order to show that the evangelical engagement "is something that should have been disclosed."
Johnnie Moore, an evangelical public relations executive who is seen as the de-facto spokesperson for the group of evangelical advisers to the White House, shot down AU's assertion that a formal advisory committee exists.
Moore, who was also one of the recipients of the AU letter, told Religion News Service that there has "never been" a formal White House Faith or Evangelical Council.
"Some members of the press innocently chose to carry over language used in the campaign into coverage of the administration, but that campaign council was officially disbanded after the campaign," Moore was quoted as saying. "Those of us associated with that original group — which I might add wasn't even required to endorse candidate Trump — have been consistent in stating that no such council exists in the actual administration."
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council and an evangelical leader who has engaged with the administration, told PJ Media that the way the Trump administration is engaging with evangelical leaders is similar to the way the Obama administration engaged with left-leaning organizations like Planned Parenthood.
"The only difference is that President Trump has reached out to conservatives, not liberals," Perkins said. "Where has Americans Divided been for the last eight years?"
From a political perspective, Tuttle, a Lutheran, agreed with Perkins' argument. However, he disagreed from a theological point of view.
"In a political sense, I think that is true. In a theological sense, I think Tony Perkins is deeply wrong because those who proclaim the Gospel are called to an independence that Planned Parenthood is not," Tuttle said. "Planned Parenthood can have its own opinion but we live under God's law and that is not what happens to be the premonition of a president whose life up to this point has not shown the virtues of adherence to God's law."
Despite his opinion on the matter, Tuttle does not believe that any laws were broken by using public funding to finance last week's White House dinner for evangelical leaders.
"The president has a great deal of discretion on the use of the executive budget and no one would have standing to challenge the expenditure of funds on dinner solely for ministers that adhere to his understanding of faith that he wishes certain people in the electorate would believe that he has," Tuttle said.