Executive order promoting religious liberty draws praise, criticism

Tribune News Service • May 6, 2017 at 8:00 AM

Religious conservatives are viewing President Donald Trump's executive order "promoting free speech and religious liberty" as the first significant step toward reversing a web of regulations they have considered unfair for decades.

Opponents, however, fear it is a big step back for democracy and could entice religious leaders to take political positions, casting a shadow on their credibility as spiritual leaders.

Declaring he was giving churches their "voices back," Trump signed the executive order Thursday at the White House as he marked the National Day of Prayer.

The order doesn't change any laws. Instead, it directs the Treasury Department to not take "adverse action" over churches or religious organizations for engaging in political speech. Even though this rule has rarely been enforced, opponents claim the restrictions have a chilling effect on religious organizations' right to free speech.

Trump's order also asks federal agencies to consider issuing new regulations that the White House says could help religious groups that object to paying for contraception under the Affordable Care Act health law. And it asks the attorney general to issue guidance on federal religious liberty protections.

Opponents and supporters of the order don't fall neatly into the worlds of "secular" and "religious." One who expressed frustration Thursday was Los Angeles Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, who described the order as "deeply disturbing."

"We've had a good system in place that ensures our congregations are credible institutions and our pastors are credible leaders," Rabbi Klein said. "This is a step in the direction of partisanship in the pews."

But others in the faith community welcomed what they described as the president's enthusiasm for religious liberty.

"We are in support of any effort by our government to protect our religious freedoms," said John Collins, executive pastor for Harvest Ministries in Riverside. Collins that while the focus of his church is spiritual, not political, he encourages members to participate in politics and to vote according to biblical values.

Others, such as John Mclean, communications director at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, agree.

"We believe that the pulpit should be politics-free," Mclean said. "We declare the truth of the Bible here. This executive order will not affect how we approach our Sunday sermons."

The order did not match a detailed draft leaked earlier this year that would have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees based on their religious beliefs.

It's unclear what impact, if any, this executive order would have on LGBT communities, said Laura Kanter, director of policy, advocacy and youth programs at the LGBT Center Orange County.

"My fear is regardless of the language in this order, right-wing churches are going to be able to use their churches as propaganda machines," she said. "We need to recognize that the people behind this executive order are groups that have spent years denigrating the LGBT community and stopping women from being able to control their own bodies."

Trump's move has thrilled those on the religious right, including Anaheim resident Louis P. Sheldon, founder of the Traditional Values Coalition, which has been labeled an "anti-LGBT hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Sheldon said last June he was in a room with 100-or-so religious leaders in New York City, where then-candidate Trump talked at length about how he would undo the regulation known as the Johnson Amendment. The amendment, named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was put into force in 1954. It allows a wide range of advocacy on political issues, but it bars electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit.

The IRS does not make public its investigations of such cases, but only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status because of political activity.

However, only Congress has the authority to repeal the Johnson amendment.

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