WASHINGTON – Seeking to redefine the balance between church and state, President Trump signed an executive order that – depending on your point of view – either protects religious liberty, licenses religious groups to practice discrimination, or doesn't go far enough in any direction.
"We're a nation of believers," Trump told supporters during a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. "Faith is deeply embedded in the history of our country... No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the American government and the tenets of their faith."
Trump's executive order, which he signed on Thursday to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, calls for easing of Internal Revenue Service enforcement of the so-called "Johnson Amendment," which prohibits churches from getting directly involved in political campaigns.
While only Congress can formally do away with the law, this will pave the way for churches and other religious leaders to speak about politics and endorse candidates without worrying about losing their tax-exempt status.
Trump, criticizing the Johnson amendment as a violation of free speech rights, views his actions as fulfillment of a campaign pledge. "I talked about it a lot" during last year's presidential campaign, and "promised to take action," he said. "I won."
The Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty also aims to make it easier for employers with religious objections not to include contraception coverage in workers' health care plans, although it would be up to federal agencies to determine how that would happen.
Vowing to fight what he called discrimination against religious people and institutions, Trump said, "We will not allow people of faith to be bullied, targeted, or silenced any more." The government, he added, has been used as "a weapon" against religion and people of faith.
According to a brief summary of the order provided by the White House, it also "declares that it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty."
Civil rights and non-profit groups were already preparing to fight the order. A day before the signing, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign worried Trump's order may take action that would allow people to deny benefits or services to gays and women using birth control, and discriminate against others they oppose.
Religious conservatives have long pushed Trump to fulfill his campaign promise to protect religious liberty, which they say the Obama administration undermined by imposing national nondiscrimination policies and making it possible for employees to obtain birth control even if their employers did not offer it for religious reasons.
But some are already expressing their disappointment with what they considered the vague nature of Thursday's order.
Religious organizations such as the Alliance Defending Freedom said the order did not adequately address the worries of people who fear government sanction if they refuse to provide services or benefits on religious or moral grounds.
Citing an Agriculture Department order that required a Michigan meatpacking plant to remove literature objecting to same-sex marriage from a break room table in 2015, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom, Gregory S. Baylor, said Trump's order offers "no specific relief" to people "threatened with the effective closure of their family-run business for simply expressing a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government."
Other religious conservatives were pleased with Trump's order, and are looking forward to further action on this front.
Tony Perkins, president of the influential Family Research Council who has been working with the administration on this issue, called the order a "good first step."
"The Trump administration recognizes and understands the anti-faith policies of the previous administration and will be issuing guidance government-wide ensuring religious beliefs and actions are respected," he said. "The open season on Christians and other people of faith is coming to a close."
The order's provision directing the IRS to exercise restraint in enforcing the Johnson Amendment's prohibition on church involvement in political campaigns also doesn't go far enough, Baylor added. "Americans cannot rely on the discretion of IRS agents, some of whom have abused that discretion for years to silence pastors and intrude into America’s pulpits," he said.
Passed in 1954 – and named for then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the future president – the Johnson Amendment says that churches and other non-profit institutions that are exempt from taxation "are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of [or in opposition to] any candidate for elective public office."
The IRS says that "violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes."
The order does not repeal the Johnson Amendment. Only Congress can do that. What's more, some religious organizations oppose tampering with it all.
A coalition of 99 religious groups sent a letter to Congress noting that religious leaders can speak out on political issues in their private capacities, and often do so. The Johnson amendment only prohibits them from using tax-exempt houses of worship to endorse candidates or make campaign contributions.
Calling for the retention of the Johnson amendment, the letter said that "current law simply limits groups from being both a tax-exempt ministry and a partisan political entity."
The last time the IRS investigated a house of worship for violating the restriction was 2009, according to advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
"It is clear that churches and church leaders already have robust free speech rights," Maggie Garret, the group's legislative director, said in prepared remarks for a congressional hearing Thursday on the issue.
Adding fuel to the fire, a coalition of nearly 4,500 charitable, philanthropic and religious organizations sent a letter to Congress opposing weakening federal tax law restrictions on political activity by nonprofits. The groups said that would "would damage the integrity and effectiveness of all charitable organizations and spawn litigation."