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

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.
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. | (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

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.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith Follow Samuel Smith on Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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