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Trump grants antigay clergy ‘free speech & religious liberty’ protections

Trump grants antigay clergy ‘free speech & religious liberty’ protections
Photo: White House
President Trump today fulfilled a promise to take the first step toward scrapping IRS rules that prevent non-profit organizations for advocating for political candidates or causes, with his latest executive order. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” Trump declared before a gathering of religious leaders in the White House Rose Garden. Antigay activist Franklin Graham was in attendance. Absent from his remarks and, from the actual executive order, is any trace of the threats to the LGBTQ community contained in an original draft circulated in February, the Washington Post reported. That draft, said civil libertarians and advocates, would have provided the religious right a “license to discriminate” against LGBTQ Americans, with a controversial provision that could have allowed religiously-minded federal contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ employees or single mothers. The original order would have protected that discrimination based on “religious freedom.” In the place of that attack on civil rights is a blanket statement that declares “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” “President Trump’s executive order removes a sword of Damocles that has hung over the faith community for decades by administratively repealing the Johnson Amendment and restoring the right to political speech by pastors, churches and ministries,” said conservative Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, who once suggested President Obama was a greater threat than the Nazis of World War II. On the other side, there was condemnation from LGBTQ activists and advocates alike. GLSEN’s Executive Director, Dr. Eliza Byard said in a statement, “Once again the LGBTQ community is moved to celebrate the idea that we have dodged a bullet. And once again this administration has taken another step down a dangerous slippery slope, undermining safeguards against discrimination and the intrusion of partisan politics into our faith communities and other aspects of civic life designed to serve the needs of all of the American public. We join with many in the religious and civil rights communities opposing this action.” GLSEN condemned the order, adding:
Under the newly signed order, churches and other houses of worship will now be able to engage in political campaigning without fear of losing their tax-exempt status with the IRS. Significant numbers of faith leaders oppose this action, with 1,300 faith leaders signing an open letter to President Trump in support of the Johnson Amendment. Additionally, 71 percent of Americans oppose allowing religious organizations to endorse political candidates while maintaining tax-exempt status. Clearly our partners of religious faith and the American people understand that President Trump’s actions today undermine the fundamentally American separation of church and state, and, of great concern to GLSEN specifically, empowers certain institutions within the faith community that have been overtly and aggressively hostile to the rights and wellbeing of LGBTQ youth. The Executive Order also launches an attack on contraceptive coverage in healthcare plans. This move has a direct impact on LGBTQ youth and a disproportionate impact on women and girls, denying them full control over their own bodies and healthcare.
“Thanks to the overwhelming pushback from so many communities, President Trump stopped short today of explicitly endorsing anti-LGBT discrimination,” said Mara Keisling, Executive Director of the National Center for Transgender Equality. “But this vaguely worded order is clearly aimed at providing a license to discriminate against LGBT people, women, religious minorities, and others—while also eroding the separation of church and state. President Trump has simply asked others in his administration to do much of his dirty work.” PFLAG National issued this statement:
Today the President of the United States issued an Executive Order which, although longer than one of his tweets, left us stunned by its brevity, alarmed by its content, perplexed by its many unanswered questions, and concerned about the next steps of this administration. In signing this so-called “religious liberty” order, the president has essentially granted broad permission to discriminate, and ceded enormous power to unelected officials to interpret regulation and current law. We are deeply concerned that rights and protections for people from marginalized communities will be even further subject to the whims of others’ personal ideology controlling their lives, a concept entirely antithetical to the values of freedom and dignity our nation holds dear. The irony of the president invoking the names of Thomas Jefferson—one of the greatest proponents of the separation of church and state—and The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—one of the great champions of nondiscrimination and equal rights—as he signed this Executive Order might have been lost on him; they were not lost on us.
Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, had this to say, in an emailed statement:
Churches, temples and mosques play an important role in our society. But they are not, and should not, be political campaigns or political action committees. Faith leaders and people of faith agree that this is a line that should not be crossed. This executive order also continues the Republican ‘War on Women.’ After rescinding the Obama regulation prohibiting states from barring qualified providers like Planned Parenthood from the Title X family planning program, this order goes even further by permitting employers to exclude coverage of contraceptives in their health plans, thereby depriving countless women of basic health care. This executive order is pure political payback. It promotes religious discrimination and harms women’s health, and should be struck down by the courts.
Family Equality Council CEO Rev. Stan J. Sloan said:
This order, and the President’s remarks at the signing ceremony, are a yet another development in the disturbing pattern of religious exemption bills and policies surfacing at the state and federal levels. These religious exemptions undermine protections for LGBTQ families in general, and they disproportionately impact those living on low incomes or who are otherwise vulnerable. As an Episcopal priest, I am deeply disturbed by the hijacking of religious faith to justify political and social discrimination. Over the past decade, Family Equality Council has worked hard to ensure our families are visible, recognized, and protected throughout the federal government. Today, we see these gains being undermined from the White House and the Justice Department to the halls of State Government across the country. We will stay watchful, vigilant, and ready to fight against any attempts to further legitimize or legalize discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
SAGE CEO Michael Adams emailed:
Anti-LGBT religious leaders and denominations are aggressively lobbying the federal government to authorize religious-based discrimination against LGBT people, including elders who rely on federally funded services. SAGE was founded to fight that discrimination, which LGBT elders face every day. We will do everything in our power to fight efforts by the Trump Administration to facilitate religious-based discrimination against our older community members, who have fought for decades for the equality that we have gradually won.
And there was this tweet from activist Ernest Owens of Philadelphia:

The document’s key goal is a vow to ease restrictions imposed by the Johnson Amendment, the rule limiting political participation by tax-exempt religious groups.

Before signing the order, Trump signaled that there was more to this than eliminating what he called “this financial threat against the faith community.” He revealed he was directing the Justice Department to “develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans.”

“The federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs,” Trump said. The president said he was taking action to protect liberties “given to us not by any earthly power but by our creator in heaven.”

“Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation,” Trump told supporters gathered in the Rose Garden on Thursday. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”

By signing this order on the National Day of Prayer, he fulfilled a key campaign promise he made to a crowd of religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast in February: “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.” The Johnson amendment, originally a part of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, prevents all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from advocating for political candidates.

Trump said the federal government has “used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith.”

But changing the Internal Revenue Code requires an act of Congress. However, Trump can influence how it is enforced. ABC News reported that according to sources, the order instructs the Treasury Department not to target the tax-exempt status of churches and other institutions for supporting political candidates.

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment claim that organizations that are exempt from paying taxes to the federal government should not directly engage with those in political office who can act to increase or decrease their benefits. Those opposed claim the amendment violates the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections.

Before the signing, Trump also announced that his first foreign visits as president would be to Saudi Arabia, Israel and The Vatican, and promising to work with Muslim leaders to combat “extremism, terrorism and violence.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This report has been updated to include reaction from a variety of LGBTQ groups. 

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