NEW YORK ― The American Civil Liberties Union won’t be seeing the president in court after all.
After vowing early on Thursday that they’d be suing President Donald Trump over an executive order on religious liberty that he was expected to sign later in the day, the civil liberties group hours later called off the plans and said it would stand down.
“After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process,” said a statement by Anthony Romero, the ACLU’s executive director. “The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.”
Romero said the order was, in essence, just a way to pander to religious conservatives. He didn’t rule out legal action in the event one of the agencies listed in the order, such as the Department of Health and Human Services, takes official action that harms individuals.
“What President Trump did today was merely provide a faux sop to religious conservatives and kick the can down the road on religious exemptions on reproductive health care services,” Romero said.
As written, Trump’s executive order simply directs the administration to be more discrete with how the federal government enforces the so-called Johnson Amendment, a provision of federal law that forbids religious and other tax-exempt organizations from advocating or opposing political candidates. The provision is rarely enforced, and the vast majority of organizations that are subject to it voluntarily comply.
Marty Lederman, a Georgetown University law professor who analyzed the order’s potential effect, estimated that it would be zilch. “Turned out to be a big nuthin’,” he wrote in a legal blog.
Indeed, even conservatives seemed disappointed that Trump’s executive order on religion didn’t sweep as broadly as they had hoped.
“Tell the president that the nation’s first liberty demands more respect — and more protection — than the dangerous nothingness of this executive order,” wrote David French, a National Review Online writer.
Despite the ACLU’s about-face, another advocacy group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, deemed Trump’s order and statements to be enough of a threat to the separation of church and state and filed a federal lawsuit in Wisconsin over it.
“The intended preferential treatment of churches and other religious organizations results in obligations imposed on secular non-profits, including the Plaintiffs, that are not imposed on churches, which distinction arises exclusively from the application of religious criteria,” reads the lawsuit, which asks a federal judge to declare the order unconstitutional.