Trump to sign executive order on religious freedom today
President Donald Trump will sign one of the most significant and impactful executive orders of his presidency today, as he will make it easier for churches and other religious non-profits to engage in political activity.
Even more importantly, the order will allow religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor to choose not to cover abortion services or contraceptives in their Obamacare policies.
The order is aimed at easing an IRS provision that prohibits churches from directly opposing or endorsing political candidates. Mr. Trump has been promising to get rid of the measure.
The action will direct the IRS to immediately "exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden" of the so-called Johnson amendment, a tax provision dating from 1954.
The action also will allow non-profit organizations to deny certain health coverage for religious reasons. It's aimed at protecting Christian groups like Little Sisters of the Poor that were "persecuted by the Obama administration" from being forced to pay for abortion services, the official said.
"They've been persecuted by Obamacare's preventive services mandate," the official said. "This order would provide regulatory relief."
The Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover contraceptives at no cost to patients. After a Supreme Court ruled that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government created an accommodation for closely held, for-profit businesses that have a religious objection, involving filling out a form to arrange for a third party to provide coverage instead.
But the Little Sisters and several other religious groups say the accommodation still forces them to be complicit in providing people with contraception against their religious beliefs.
Addressing the Johnson amendment, attorney Stuart Lark said religious organizations have a "vital interest in their ability to exercise and express their beliefs as communities of faith."
"Our country has a long history of protecting religious organizations from laws that substantially burden their ability to act in accordance with their beliefs," said Mr. Lark, who has represented religious organizations for two decades. "These protections foster pluralism and minimize the impact of government action on private religious choices, and in so doing they advance core principles underlying the First Amendment. To the extent the executive Order expands these protections, it will be a welcome development for the many diverse faith communities in this country."
At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Mr. Trump vowed to "destroy" the provision, known as the Johnson Amendment.
"I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution," Mr. Trump said at the time.
It is doubtfrul that the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act would have been passed if the IRS had strictly enforced its ban on political activity by churches. Black preachers carried out political organizing and spoke out strongly for civil rights from the pulpit. So it's a legitimate question to ask: if the Johnson Amendment could be set aside for civil rights, why not for other social issues supported by conservatives?
In 2015, the IRS was sued by Judicial Watch on behalf of religious groups the IRS was investigating for violating the Johnson Amendment. At that time, the investigations were seen as another attempt by the IRS to stifle conservative political activity. With the stroke of a pen, the president will make it much harder for the IRS to shut down religious organizations that exercise their constitutional rights of free speech.
To which we can say, "it's about time."