President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on Thursday on “religious liberty.” According to White House officials, the order could either offer protections to individuals and organizations who discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community or make it easier for tax-exempt churches and faith groups to endorse political candidates ― or both.
If the order reflects a draft leaked in February, as several officials told Politico on Tuesday, opponents say it could give conservative Christians license to deny goods and services to members of the LGBTQ community.
As news of the impending “religious liberty” order broke on Tuesday, more than 1,000 faith leaders released a letter urging the president to abandon it.
“Although it purports to strengthen religious freedom, what this order would actually do is misuse this freedom, turning it into a weapon to discriminate against broad swaths of our nation, including LGBTQ people, women, and children in foster care,” the leaders wrote.
“We urge you to turn away from all proposals that would abuse religious freedom, including any executive orders on this issue that are currently under consideration.”
White House officials told Politico that Trump would likely sign the order on Thursday to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, which they said the administration was “already planning to celebrate” with faith leaders.
The order, officials said, would be similar to a draft that was leaked to The Nation in February and which promised federal protections to individuals or organizations ― including “closely held for-profit corporations” ― who choose to refrain from activities that may “violate their conscience.”
Several administration officials told The New York Times on Wednesday that Thursday’s order would do good on Trump’s promise to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” which currently prevents churches and other tax-exempt religious groups from actively participating in politics.
It was unclear whether Trump planned to sign two separate orders on “religious freedom” or one that would cover both political endorsements and goods and services.
February’s draft order offered protections to employers who deny employee health coverage for contraception and abortion and to federally funded adoption and family services organizations who discriminate against same-sex couples.
It also promised to protect the tax-exempt status of any religious organization or privately held company that “believes, speaks, or acts (or declines to act) in accordance with the belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”
In their letter, some 1,300 faith leaders pointed out that religious freedom is already protected by the First Amendment and federal law. What the draft, if reflected in Thursday’s order, would add to this existing freedom are protections for those who choose to discriminate against others as part of their enactment of their faith.
The letter states:
The religious freedom upon which our nation was founded has allowed our country’s diverse religious landscape to flourish. The draft executive order flies in the face of that rich diversity by enshrining one religious perspective―on marriage, gender identity, health care, and the role of houses of worship in partisan politics―into law, above all others. This is neither what religious freedom means in the eyes of the law, nor what religion itself means to millions of Americans of faith.
Among the signers are Rev. Jennifer Butler, CEO of Faith in Public Life; Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, director of Bend the Arc; Rev. Dr. Susan Thistlethwaite, a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary; and Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the U.S. Episcopal Church.
“For many of us,” the leaders said, “supporting LGBTQ individuals and families is a principle of our faith, and that needs to be respected as well.”
Most Americans would agree, according to a recent study by Public Religion Research Institute. A majority of American adults ― from almost all faith backgrounds ― are in support of legal same-sex marriage.
And 61 percent of Americans are opposed to offering legal protections to small business owners who claim religious reasons for denying goods and services to LGBTQ people.
A “religious liberty” order like the one leaked in February caters to a small group of Americans ― including some white evangelical Christians, as well as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops ― who are opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights.
Groups like the USCCB sincerely believe that ― as the group wrote in a statement supporting the February draft ― “religious freedom is under severe threat,” and Christians are the primary victims.
Issues of religious liberty are indeed playing out throughout the country, mostly affecting Muslims, Sikhs, Native Americans and other religious and ethnic minorities who have had to fight for their right to live and practice their faith as American citizens.
“Freedom of religion guarantees us the right to hold any belief we choose and to act on our religious beliefs,” the faith leaders wrote. “But it does not allow us to harm others in the name of those beliefs.”