Trump's Religious Freedom Order a 'Nothing-Burger,' Conservatives Say

(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)U.S. President Donald Trump prepares to sign the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C. on May 4, 2017.

President Donald Trump signed the much anticipated executive order on religious liberty and free speech in front of faith leaders gathered at the White House Rose Garden Thursday morning. However, some conservatives aren't pleased that the scope of the order isn't as broad as the initial draft order leaked to the media in February.

According to a one-page outline of the order released Wednesday by the White House, the order signed by Trump Thursday does three main things.

First, it targets the long running threat posed by the Johnson Amendment that churches and other nonprofits could be stripped of their tax-exempt statuses if they endorse political candidates and engaging in politicking, by directing the IRS "not to unfairly target churches and religious organizations for political speech."

The order also "provides regulatory relief" and instructs the Department of Health and Human Services to "consider" providing religious exemptions to the Obamacare contraception and birth control health care mandate that religious organizations and companies, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor and Hobby Lobby, felt forced them to violate their religious beliefs. HHS Secretary Tom Price has already vowed to to take action in "short order" to examine the Obama policies and "safeguard" religious freedom.

Additionally, the order "declares that it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty."

"With this executive order, we also make clear that the federal government will never penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs," Trump declared during his remarks in the Rose Garden, saying that he also instructed the Department of Justice to "develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans."

"There are more than 50 religious Americans and groups that sued the previous administration for violating their religious freedom," Trump said. "The abuses were widespread, the abuses were all over."

The White House released the actual language of the order later in the day, after the intial reactions included in this article. 

But based off of the outline of the order provided Wednesday, Gregory Baylor, a lawyer with the conservative religious freedom advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom, argued in an analysis that Trump's order still leaves Trump's campaign promises on religious liberty "unfulfilled."

Additionally, National Review columnist David French referred to the order as a "nothing-burger" of a religious liberty order, considering repealing the Johnson Amendment would take an act of Congress.

Commenting on the language leaked by Ward, French stated that "It's actually less robust than the summaries made it seem."

In an analysis of the outline released Wednesday, Baylor pointed out other of concerns conservative Christians have that the executive order does not address:

"First, no specific relief is offered to families like the Vander Boons in Michigan, who were threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business for simply expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government.

"Second, the outline directs the IRS 'to exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.' But Americans cannot rely on the discretion of IRS agents, some of whom have abused that discretion for years to silence pastors and intrude into America's pulpits. Nor does the outline do anything to prevent a future, hostile administration from wielding its power to penalize any church who dares exercise its constitutionally protected freedoms in a manner that displeases those in authority. A legislative problem like the Johnson Amendment demands a legislative solution like the Free Speech Fairness Act."

The order also doesn't address another religious freedom concern conservative Christian organizations are facing. White House officials told the Washington Post that a provision was not included in the order that would allow religious organizations that contract with the federal government to have employment policies consistent with their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage.

Such a provision would provide relief to faith-based contractors from an 2014 Obama order that banned federal contractors from having hiring policies that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ryan Anderson, a senior fellow at the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, wrote in an op-ed published by the Daily Signal that Trump's religious liberty order "fails to address most pressing religious liberty threats" and criticized the language for being too soft.

"Today's executive order is woefully inadequate. Trump campaigned promising Americans that he would protect their religious liberty rights and correct the violations that took place during the previous administration," Anderson wrote. "Trump's election was about correcting problems of the last administration, including religious liberty violations and the hostility to people of faith in the United States. This order does not do that. It is a mere shadow of the original draft leaked in February."

Anderson added that the order is simply "general language about the importance of religious liberty, saying the executive branch 'will honor and enforce' existing laws and instructing the Department of Justice to 'issue guidance' on existing law; directives to the Department of the Treasury to be lenient in the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment; and directives to the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services (HHS) to 'consider issuing amended regulations' to 'address conscience-based objections' to the HHS contraception mandate."

Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump's evangelical advisory board who attended the signing ceremony, told The Christian Post that it is "unrealistic" for Christian conservatives to think that Trump can solve all religious liberty issues in one executive order.

"What I mean by that is that over the last eight years, the Obama administration was so thorough in their dismantling of religious liberty and their attack on conservatives, evangelicals, traditional Catholics and people of faith, it would be impossible to fix all that in one sweeping action," Moore explained. "That's why this is the beginning. He's instructing the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury to take specific policy actions and to evaluate which policies have inhibited religious freedom and addressing them."

"I think all those guys, while I appreciate the voice of those who have been advocates for religious freedom for a long time, I think they ought to be celebrating today and give credit where credit is due," Moore added. "That is to a president who is a friend to conservative Christians in this country."

In a statement, Focus on the Family founder and prominent evangelical leader James Dobson praised the order and said that Trump's action "must be the first among others because the efforts by previous administrations to marginalize conservative communities of faith were real, thorough and complex."

"I have been privileged to serve five presidents. I've witnessed the ebb and flow of politics in this country for a half century, and I prayed with great anxiety about the future as I watched President Obama move this nation in a direction that defied the Constitution, especially as it relates to religious liberty," Dobson said. "In all these years I've never found myself more optimistic about the preservation of our Judeo Christian values as I am today."

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins said in a statement that Thursday's order only "starts the process of reversing the devastating trend set by the last administration to punish charities, pastors, family owned businesses and honest, hard-working people simply for living according to their faith."

"In working with the Trump administration, it is clear that they both recognize and understand the dangers of the anti-faith policies of the previous administration and are therefore committed to undoing those policies and restoring true religious freedom," Perkins assured.

"The President's executive order is a clear reflection of his campaign promise to protect the religious freedoms of Americans," Perkins added. "President Trump is taking a significant first step to defending religious liberty."

Even before the final language of the order has been published by the White House, the American Civil Liberties Union has already vowed to file a lawsuit against the order. Earlier this week, other liberal and pro-LGBT organizations also threatened to take legal action against the order.

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