WASHINGTON ― It appears that LGBTQ rights advocates can breathe a sigh of relief on Thursday, when President Donald Trump signs an executive order on religious liberty.
Rumors have been swirling for days that Trump was poised to sign an order to allow virtually any federally funded entity with a religious affiliation to refuse service to someone based on religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion or a transgender identity. Such an action would have, in effect, licensed the government to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Instead, White House officials said Trump plans to sign an executive order to make it easier for churches to engage in politics without risking their tax-exempt status ― a controversial but far less extreme action than expected. The administration has not provided the text of the executive order, though, so its specific details remain unclear.
In a background call with reporters on Wednesday night, White House officials confirmed this would be the only executive action taken regarding religious liberty, for now. They tamped down on the idea that Trump had been planning to target the LGBTQ community.
“This [executive order] isn’t about discrimination. We don’t have any plans for discriminat[ion],” said one official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity. “We’re about not discriminating against religious organizations.”
The official said the order does not relate to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a controversial state law that Vice President Mike Pence signed in 2015 as Indiana governor. That law, which allowed businesses to cite their religious freedom as a legal defense, was criticized nationwide for opening the door to blatant discrimination against LGBTQ people.
The president, instead, is focused on removing barriers to churches and religious organizations so they can get more involved in politics while maintaining their tax-exempt status. The official said Trump believes it’s “intolerant and un-American” for politicians and government officials “to shut up their critics just because they’re church leaders or charities.”
The order also will instruct the government to provide regulatory relief to organizations that object to the Affordable Care Act’s “burdensome preventive services mandate” ― the requirement that health insurance plans offered by for-profit companies to employees cover contraception. The Supreme Court already chipped away at that provision in a ruling allowing Hobby Lobby and other closely held for-profit organizations to deny contraception coverage if they said it violated their religious beliefs.
The White House official said the order will only instruct the government to provide regulatory relief, but didn’t say what that would actually mean.
Here’s what White House officials handed out to reporters on Wednesday night.
It’s unclear how much of an effect Trump’s executive order will actually have. Congress would have to pass legislation to change the tax code provision, known as the Johnson Amendment, that prohibits churches and clergy from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Trump’s executive order simply directs the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson amendment.”
“All laws still apply,” the official said.
Trump is taking this action for two reasons: to fulfill a campaign promise to go after the Johnson Amendment, and to tie some kind of executive order on religious liberty to the National Day of Prayer, which is Thursday. He and Pence are hosting leaders of the White House evangelical advisory board for dinner, and they want to throw a bone to them and social conservatives.
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