WASHINGTON ― It looks like LGBTQ rights advocates can breathe a sigh of relief after President Donald Trump on Thursday signed a religious liberty executive order that doesn’t directly target LGBTQ people, but rather, focuses on allowing churches to get more involved in politics.
Rumors had been swirling for days that Trump was poised to take action to allow virtually any federally funded entity with a religious affiliation to refuse service to someone based on religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion or transgender identity. Such a move would have, in effect, licensed the government to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Instead, Trump signed an executive order to make it easier for churches to engage in politics without risking their tax-exempt status ― a controversial but far less extreme action than expected.
“We are giving our churches their voices back,” he said Thursday before signing the order.
In a background call with reporters on Wednesday night, White House officials confirmed this would be the only executive action taken regarding religious liberty, at least for now. They tamped down on the idea that Trump had been planning to target the LGBTQ community.
“This [executive order] isn’t about discrimination. We don’t have any plans for discriminat[ion],” said one official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. “We’re about not discriminating against religious organizations.”
The official said the order does not relate to controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act state laws, including the statute that Vice President Mike Pence signed in 2015 as Indiana governor. Pence’s law, which allowed businesses to cite religious freedom as a legal defense, was criticized nationwide for opening the door to blatant discrimination against LGBTQ people.
Instead, Trump is focused on removing barriers to churches and religious organizations wading into politics. The official said Trump believes it’s “intolerant and un-American” for politicians and government officials “to shut up their critics just because they’re church leaders or charities.”
Here’s the full text of the executive order:
It’s unclear how much of an effect Trump’s action will actually have. His executive order doesn’t overturn the federal Johnson Amendment, the tax code provision that prohibits many nonprofit organizations that claim tax-exempt status, including churches, from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Only Congress can change that law. Trump is simply directing the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson amendment.”
In fact, Trump’s action could leave churches more vulnerable to losing their tax-exempt status. The next presidential administration that comes in could easily nix his executive order and then enforce the law based on churches’ conduct during Trump’s time in office.
After signing the order, Trump said he did so “in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King,” the civil rights leader and minister. He implied that the Johnson Amendment would have kept King from speaking out about politics, although that clearly wasn’t the case ― it went into effect years before King’s death. The amendment prevents churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates; it does not restrict all speech about issues related to politics.
It’s not clear whether the executive order will lead to changes outside the specific ones directing IRS policy. It also instructs the rest of the government to “respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech” to the extent possible by law.
LGBTQ groups warned that Trump’s action could lead to further discrimination.
“Thanks to the overwhelming pushback from so many communities, President Trump stopped short today of explicitly endorsing anti-LGBT discrimination,” Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “But this vaguely worded order is clearly aimed at providing a license to discriminate against LGBT people, women, religious minorities, and others ― while also eroding the separation of church and state. President Trump has simply asked others in his administration to do much of his dirty work.”
The executive order also instructs the government to provide regulatory relief to organizations that object to the Affordable Care Act’s “burdensome preventive services mandate” ― the requirement that health insurance plans offered by for-profit companies to their employees cover contraception. The Supreme Court already chipped away at that provision in a ruling allowing Hobby Lobby and other closely held for-profit organizations to deny contraception coverage if they said it violated their religious beliefs.
The White House official said the order would only instruct the government to provide regulatory relief, but didn’t say what that would actually mean.
The president took this action for two reasons: to fulfill a campaign promise to go after the Johnson Amendment, and to tie some kind of executive order on religious liberty to the National Day of Prayer, which is Thursday. He and Pence are hosting leaders of the White House evangelical advisory board for dinner, and they want to throw a bone to them and social conservatives.
“You’re now in a position where you can say what you want to say,” Trump said before signing the order. “And I know you’ll only say good and you’ll say what’s in your heart. And that’s what we want from you.”