President Donald Trump signed a long-awaited executive order on religious liberty at the White House on Thursday ― a grand gesture that’s left some conservatives disappointed, and that most Americans don’t even want.
The executive order, timed to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, seeks to weaken a decades-old IRS regulation that prevents churches and other tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates. Trump has asked the IRS to use maximum enforcement discretion when applying this law, known as the Johnson Amendment.
“We are giving our churches their voices back. We are giving them back in the highest form,” Trump said during a gathering of religious leaders in the Rose Garden on Thursday.
The order also includes a vague promise of “regulatory relief” for employers with religious objections to offering employees birth control coverage as part of health insurance plans ― which is currently a requirement under the Affordable Care Act and was subject to a number of challenges in the Supreme Court. The Republican health care plan that the House is voting on Thursday appears to keep the contraception mandate intact. It’s unclear exactly how the executive order would impact that bill.
The document stops short of allowing federal contractors with religious affiliations to refuse service to people based on moral objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, or a transgender identity. Such a provision, which was included in a leaked version of the order in February, was strongly condemned by progressive religious clergy who believed it gave the businesses the license to discriminate on the basis of faith. It is not in the final version of Trump’s order.
Trump met privately with members of his evangelical advisory board on Wednesday night, and with Catholic leaders on Thursday morning before signing the order, the AP reports.
The Johnson Amendment is a 1954 law that restricts institutions that are tax-exempt, such as churches, from actively campaigning for or against specific political candidates. It would require an act of Congress to fully repeal this rule.
But Trump seemed certain that his executive order would help American churches.
“This financial threat to the faith community is over,” Trump said on Thursday. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
It’s difficult to know how many churches were actually penalized for failure to abide by the Johnson Amendment, since the IRS keeps its investigations private. Remarkably, over the past few decades, only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status because of the rule.
Most Americans are actually opposed to having their pastors or churches explicitly endorse political candidates.
A Pew Research Center survey from 2016 found that while many Americans agreed that churches and other houses of worship should express their views on social and political matters (47 percent), a strong majority didn’t think churches should endorse specific political candidates (66 percent).
This holds true across many religious groups. Only 33 percent of Protestants, 28 percent of Catholics, and 26 percent of the religiously unaffiliated believe churches should endorse candidates during elections.
A coalition of 99 religious organizations sent a letter to members of Congress in April reiterating their opposition to “any effort to weaken or eliminate protections that prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing or opposing political candidates.”
The signers included prominent national Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, and interfaith groups.
This week, more than 1,000 religious leaders signed a letter urging the president to “turn away from all proposals that would abuse religious freedom.”
Even white evangelical Protestants, who voted for Trump by an overwhelming majority (81 percent), are against the idea. Just 37 percent of white evangelicals think churches should endorse political candidates.
The National Association of Evangelicals, a network of 45,000 local churches from nearly 40 different evangelical denominations, conducted its own survey on the matter in February. After reaching out to its board of directors, which includes CEOs of denominations and representatives evangelical universities, publishers, churches, and other organizations, the NAE found that a whopping 89 percent of these evangelical leaders don’t think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.
“Evangelicals emphasize evangelism, and pastors often avoid controversies that might take priority over the gospel message,” Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, said at the time. “Most pastors I know don’t want to endorse politicians. They want to focus on teaching the Bible.”
American religious groups are more divided on the second issue that Trump’s executive order touches on ― whether employers with religious objections to contraception should be required to provide it in health insurance plans for their employees. But the overall, broad consensus among 67 percent of American adults is “Yes,” businesses should be required to include birth control in their employees’ insurance plans.
According to a PRRI analysis conducted in February, 81 percent of the religiously unaffiliated support the contraception mandate. Nonwhite Protestants (58 percent), Catholics (60 percent), and white mainline Protestants (75 percent) are also in favor.
And significantly, a slim majority of white evangelical Protestants (54 percent) are also supportive of requiring employers to provide employees with health care plans that cover contraception or birth control at no cost.
The Obama administration created a buffer for religious for-profit and nonprofit organizations who are opposed to providing contraception to their employees, but some of these groups felt the aaccommodation didn’t go far enough. The issues is still being resolved by the courts.
The stats suggest that Americans across the religious spectrum are opposed to allowing pastors to endorse candidates and employers to refuse including birth control in their health insurance plans.
Still, the order seemed to have pleased some of the prominent religious leaders who have the president’s ear ― people like the Texas pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress, the evangelist Franklin Graham and the televangelist Paula White.
Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a member of the president’s evangelical advisory board, told the AP that the order was an excellent “first step” towards protecting religious freedom.
Reed said that Trump’s order to relax IRS restrictions on pastors endorsing candidates was a “really big deal.”
“This administratively removes the threat of harassment,” Reed told the AP.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, issued a statement saying that the organization welcomed a decision to provide a broad religious exemption to the contraception mandate, but “will have to review the details of any regulatory proposals.”
“We will continue to advocate for permanent relief from Congress on issues of critical importance to people of faith. Religious freedom is a fundamental right that should be upheld by all branches of government and not subject to political whims.”
Dr. Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told HuffPost that the order was a “welcome change in direction toward people of faith from the White House,” compared to the “executive and administrative violations of religious freedom from the Obama administration.”
But he added that much more had to be done.
“No one should conclude, of course, that this Executive Order solves the wide array of challenges we face on the religious freedom front. Much, much more must be done—especially in terms of congressional legislation—to ensure that American citizens are able to serve their communities without violating their religious convictions,” Moore told HuffPost.
Other American religious leaders were less welcoming of the order.
Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the conservative Christian Alliance Defending Freedom criticized the “disappointingly vague” language around the contraception mandate and said that Trump’s actions on Thursday left his campaign promises unfulfilled.
“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion and to ensure that all Americans — no matter where they live or what their occupation is — enjoy the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions without fear of government punishment,” Baylor told the Washington Post.
Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, called the order a “symbolic act, voicing concern for religious liberty but offering nothing to advance it.”
“Worse, it is further evidence that President Trump wants churches to be vehicles for political campaigns,” Tyler said in a statement. “The vast majority of congregants and clergy from all religious groups oppose candidate endorsements in their houses of worship ... Getting rid of the protection in the law that insulates 501(c)(3) organizations from candidates pressing for endorsements would destroy our congregations and charities from within over disagreements on partisan campaigns.”
This article has been updated to include comments from Dr. Russell Moore.