On Thursday, May 4, President Donald Trump signed an executive order titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” There had been a great deal of concern that the order, a version of which was leaked earlier this year, would allow some to discriminate against members of the LGBT community. But what actually emerged from the White House bore little resemblance to that draft.
The President spoke about the executive order at the White House during a National Day of Prayer ceremony, telling the assembled group in the Rose Garden, “Today my administration is leading by example as we take historic steps to protect religious liberty in the United States of America. We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore.”
What does it say?
The executive order has two main provisions:
First, it directs the secretary of the treasury to ensure that the Treasury Department does not take any “adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective…”
In practical terms, that tells the IRS to back off from enforcing the Johnson Amendment, a part of the federal tax code that prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations, such as churches, from participating directly or indirectly in political campaigns, or supporting or opposing a candidate.
Second, it directs the secretaries of the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments to “consider issuing amended regulations” to address “conscience-based objections to the preventative-care mandate” under the Affordable Care Act (ACA, commonly known as Obamacare).
This is aimed at the ACA’s requirement that employer health insurance plans include contraception coverage, a mandate to which many religion-based employers have objected. In his Rose Garden remarks, the president pointed to the drawn-out court battle of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic organization that claimed the ACA’s requirement that the organization’s insurance plan cover birth control was a burden on their free exercise of their religion.
Watered down, but still contentious
The executive order is less comprehensive than a draft that was leaked in February. In that draft, as reported by the BBC, private businesses and organizations would have been allowed to deny service based on “sincere religious beliefs,” which could, for example, have let businesses refuse to cater a sex-same marriage. Is it possible Trump, humbled by his experience with his infamous immigration order, watered down the bill’s language so it could pass legal muster?
Nevertheless, the American Civil Liberties Union has already vowed to fight the executive order in court and voiced its unequivocal opposition on its Twitter account: “The actions taken today are a broadside to our country’s long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state.”