Yesterday morning, in a Rose Garden ceremony commemorating the National Day of Prayer, President Trump, flanked by conservative religious leaders, signed an executive order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” While the order is a much more modest version of the draft leaked to the Investigative Fund and The Nation in February, it contains two specific provisions that have alarmed progressive activists, and one expansive but vague provision that empowers Attorney General Jeff Sessions to interpret federal law for agencies on matters of religious freedom.
With his longtime friend the prosperity televangelist Paula White standing behind him clapping and nodding, Trump claimed that “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.”
At the heart of Trump’s action yesterday is a quid pro quo with the religious-right base that helped propel him to victory in November. While Trump had shown no interest in religious issues for most of his career, he began to court the religious right for his presidential run in 2016, developing a newfound interest in one of their key animating issues: that the strong arm of the government, particularly under Democrats, represses the free-speech and religious-freedom rights of social conservatives.
“We will never, ever stand for religious discrimination, never ever,” Trump insisted yesterday, even though one of the first executive orders he signed—his Muslim ban—has been put on hold by multiple federal courts for precisely that reason.
Notably, White had been the subject of a 2007 Senate Finance Committee investigation—led by Republican Senator Charles Grassley—into whether televangelists had used tax-exempt donations for self-enrichment. After an outcry by the religious right claiming undue government interference into religious affairs, the Committee backed off the investigation.
Yesterday’s order, though, zeroed in on two issues: the Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates, and the contraception coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act. The religious right has long portrayed the Johnson Amendment as suppressing the free-speech and religious-freedom rights of pastors. In fact, they are free to say what they please, but if they endorse a political candidate, they risk revocation of their tax-exempt status.
The contraception-benefit rule, which requires employer health plans to provide co-pay-free coverage, already exempted churches and provided accommodations for religious nonprofits. But despite these modifications, the religious right has nonetheless continued to portray the provision as even more evidence of government repression of religious groups that oppose contraception. At yesterday’s signing ceremony, Trump highlighted the order of Catholic nuns Little Sisters of the Poor, who have sued over the rule, claiming that his order would end “the attacks on your religious liberty” and assuring them that their “long ordeal will soon be over.”