President Donald Trump commemorated the 2017 National Day of Prayer in the White House Rose Garden Thursday by signing a “religious freedom” executive order that, to the relief of LGBT and equality organizations, was not on its face anti-LGBT. A rally organized by LGBT rights coalition Georgia Unites Against Discrimination and scheduled for Thursday night in Midtown was subsequently cancelled.
“On first read, it does not appear to allow explicit discrimination against LGBT Americans,” said Jeff Graham, executive director of Georgia Equality. “Over the past two days, thousands of people rallied in the streets and on social media opposing anti-LGBT discrimination in the name of religion. … And tonight, hundreds of you were ready to rally in Atlanta should today’s executive order have granted a license to discriminate under the guise of protecting religious freedom. And we will be ready to rally again. Because while today’s executive order appears to stop short of outright legalizing discrimination, it could open the door for future religious exemptions that grant license to discriminate against LGBT people and more.”
The primary focus of the executive order addresses the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 rule that threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status should their leaders take to the pulpit with political issues.
Trump called the amendment “very, very unfair” and the sanctions “a crippling financial punishment.”
By signing the executive order, Trump said he would prevent the Johnson Amendment from interfering with faith leaders’ First Amendment rights.
“You’re now in a position where you can say what you want to say,” Trump said. “This executive order directs the IRS not to unfairly target churches and religious organizations for political speech. No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
Trump cited the social changes inspired by African-American churches as examples of the “noble tradition of change from the pulpit.”
“Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or synagogue or any other house of worship,” he said. “We also make clear that the federal government will never penalize another person for their protected religious beliefs. That is why I am today directing the Department of Justice to develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans.”
Trump invited a number of faith leaders and legislators to the event, and a few came onstage for the signing. Those included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s anti-LGBT niece and former Georgia state Rep. Alveda King — he even handed her a pen.
A mixed reaction
Despite the rounds of applause coming from the Rose Garden, not everyone was pleased with Trump’s latest executive order.
In a statement the anti-LGBT Alliance Defending Freedom issued following the signing, President, CEO and General Counsel Michael Farris said the executive order didn’t go far enough.
“Regrettably, this executive order leaves that promise as yet unfulfilled. As we have explained, though we appreciate the spirit of today’s gesture, vague instructions to federal agencies simply leaves them wiggle room to ignore that gesture, regardless of the spirit in which it was intended,” Farris said. “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.”
According to the Alliance, “after 60-plus years of the IRS strictly interpreting the amendment, there is no reported situation where a church lost its tax-exempt status or was punished for sermons delivered from the pulpit,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The Public Religion Research Institute found that 71 percent of Americans oppose letting religious institutions be exempt from the Johnson Amendment. Still, Trump called the move a historic example to protect religious liberty.
“Our founding fathers believed that religious liberty was so fundamental that they enshrined it in the very first amendment of our great and beloved Constitution. Yet, for too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith; bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs,” Trump said. “No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith.”
Rea Carey, executive director of the National LGBTQ Task Force, found that remark interesting.
“The irony of this order is that millions of people of faith are affronted by the fact that Trump is misusing religious freedom to promote something they believe is morally wrong. Instead of providing ‘regulatory relief’ to those who want to be able to discriminate by imposing their faith on others, our leaders should be working diligently to give relief to the millions of people who are still vulnerable,” Carey said.
A number of national LGBT rights organizations spoke out against the executive order Thursday afternoon, and the Twitterverse was rife with feedback about the order, as well as a more anti-LGBT draft predecessor that leaked in February.
Education organization GLSEN issued a statement saying its leadership was relieved the more anti-LGBT language didn’t make it into the final version. However, Executive Director Eliza Byard cautioned it was still the start of a slippery slope.
“Our partners of religious faith and the American people understand that President Trump’s actions today totally undermine the fundamentally American separation of church and state, and, of great concern to GLSEN specifically, empowers certain institutions within the faith community that have been overtly and aggressively hostile to the rights and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth,” Byard said. “While I am relieved that LGBTQ people may have dodged a fatal shot to our rights, no one wins when fundamental rights and American values are undermined or preserved based on which constituencies can shout the loudest or who has the president’s ear last.”
People for the American Way called the executive order a “pander to the religious right activists” who supported Trump’s candidacy, and said it was evidence the president is “a loyal ally of the most extreme and intolerant voices in the religious right.” The Alliance for Justice called it “most likely unconstitutional” — the Johnson Amendment cannot be repealed except by Congress — and said the order sends threatening signals about how religious institutions may be able to circumvent laws.
Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Congress and Trump are using religion as a wedge to divide the country and allow for discrimination. He also said in a statement that ACLU planned to file suit that day, but walked that back later Thursday afternoon, saying “Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. 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. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services. President Trump’s prior assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.’ The directive to federal agencies to explore religious-based exceptions to healthcare does cue up a potential future battle, but as of now, the status quo has not changed. 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. We will continue our steadfast charge to defend Americans’ right to exercise their religion and ensure their freedom from having others’ beliefs forced upon them. The ACLU stands ready to sue the Trump administration and in the event that this order triggers any official government action at all, we will see Trump in court, again.”
Freedom for All Americans’ Chief Program Officer Kasey Suffredini said he remained concerned the Trump administration may issue future executive action that explicitly singles LGBT individuals out for discrimination.
“The vast majority of Americans support protecting LGBT people from discrimination, and just this week advocates re-introduced the Equality Act in Congress with that exact aim,” Suffredini said in a statement. “Rather than allow rumors of future discriminatory actions to continue festering, the president should stand definitively with the supermajority of Americans who support nondiscrimination protections.”
Read the full text of the executive order below.