Religious Right Divided Over Trump's Executive Order

Brian Brown and Todd Starnes
From left: Brian Brown and Todd Starnes

Members of the far right love — and hate — Donald Trump’s “religious freedom” executive order.

Some activists and commentators from the extremist wing of conservatism see the Thursday order as a safety net for Christian business owners “victimized” by LGBT folks who sue over discrimination. Others see it as next to nothing, or even less than that. 

“An Army of militant atheists and LGBT activists are hell-bent on eradicating Christianity from the public marketplace and punishing Christians who follow the teachings of Christ,” Todd Starnes, a columnist, radio host, and Fox News contributor, wrote Thursday on his website. “That’s why President Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty today in the Rose Garden — to protect Americans who have been targeted by a politically correct lynch mob.”

These, he says, include Washington State florist Barronelle Stutzman, who a court ruled had violated the state’s antidiscrimination law by refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding, and the Vander Boon family, owners of a meatpacking plant in Michigan, who were ordered by federal inspectors to remove religious materials from the plant’s break room.

But Brian Brown, president of the anti-LGBT National Organization for Marriage, wrote in a blog post and fundraising pitch, “While containing some helpful provisions for pastors and religious medical providers, falls far short of what is needed to protect people of faith from governmental persecution set in motion by the Obama administration. Instead, he has punted the issue to the Department of Justice which, he says, will develop new rules to protect the religious liberty rights of people and groups.”

That punt to the Justice Department, headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, is what worries many supporters of LGBT and reproductive rights, and civil liberties in general, given Sessions’s history of hostility to those rights. “The Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law,” this portion of the order reads. But it remains unclear exactly what the department will do — plus discrimination complaints like those against Stutzman have been brought under state laws, not federal. There is still no federal statute outlawing anti-LGBT discrimination.

Another provision of the order aims to discourage the Internal Revenue Service from penalizing churches that violate the Johnson Amendment, which says churches and faith-based nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status for endorsing political candidates or donating to their campaigns. And the order also calls on federal agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections” to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employer-provided insurance plans cover contraceptives at no cost to the employee. An exemption from the requirement, allowing insurers rather than employers to absorb the cost, is available to faith-based groups and even, under the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, closely held for-profit companies, but some on the right find this an insufficient remedy.

Right-wingers are divided over these provisions as well. “These are essentially hollow promises on the president’s part,” wrote Bryan Fischer, the virulently anti-LGBT commentator from the American Family Association, in a post on the far-right BarbWire website. “No church has ever been deprived of its tax exempt status using the Johnson Amendment. … The Johnson Amendment is a toothless tiger.”

“With regard to the contraceptive battle,” he continued, “that battle has already been fought and won in the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court, in the Hobby Lobby case, has already ruled that businesses cannot be forced to violate their deeply held moral and religious principles to provide abortion-causing pills to their employees.” (Yes, some on the far right object to certain forms of contraception on the basis that they cause an abortion, albeit a very early one, by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg in the womb — although some scientific studies indicate this actually isn’t how they work.)

Yet on the same site, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, who has a close relationship with the Republican Party, praised the order highly. “For too long, the Left has used the IRS to threaten the charitable status of churches who dared to speak out on the moral issues of the day,” he wrote. “Of course, the irony of this whole debate is that pulpits are free to do exactly that under the U.S. Constitution. It was only when liberals seized on this twisted interpretation of the Johnson Amendment that pastors came under fire for exercising their God-given rights.” He quoted a Trump administration spokesman as saying the order won’t make it legal for churches “to take out ads endorsing candidates,” but will merely assure that the IRS uses “discretion” in enforcing the amendment. Perkins commended the other aspects of the order as well.

If the order were receiving unanimous praise from the religious right, it would be more worrisome to supporters of civil liberties. Right now LGBT and allied groups are relieved the order wasn’t worse, as early drafts indicated it might be, but they’re staying vigilant about what might come from Jeff Sessions and the rest of the Trump administration.

“The directive to federal agencies to explore religious-based exceptions to health care does cue up a potential future battle, but as of now, the status quo has not changed,” said American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony Romero in a statement issued Thursday. “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.”

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