Trump’s Order on Religious Liberty Pleases a Few, but Lets Down Many Conservatives

WASHINGTON — President Trump signed his long-awaited executive order on religious liberty Thursday with a full-throated reassurance that he would protect the freedom of American believers. But the reactions of religious leaders across the country suggested that it instead promised freedoms many of them did not want — and failed to deliver concrete legal protections that conservatives had been led to expect.

The centerpiece of the order is a pledge to allow clergy members and houses of worship to endorse political candidates from the pulpit, fulfilling a campaign promise that Mr. Trump repeatedly used to rally his most fervent supporters. Public opinion polls show, however, that neither the American public as a whole nor religious leaders in particular — even evangelicals, who voted for Mr. Trump in droves — think that partisan politicking by churches is a good idea.

“I don’t actually know anybody who has endorsed or who wants to endorse a politician from the pulpit,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing about 40 denominations and 45,000 churches. “My idea is that church is about teaching the Bible, it’s about discipleship and evangelism. It’s not about politics.”

The order was also a stinging disappointment for conservative religious leaders who had expected that it would exempt their organizations from Obama-era regulations aimed at protecting gay people from discrimination.

The executive order does not mention anything about relief for religious groups and charities that object to serving or hiring gay, bisexual or transgender people, and that were looking to Mr. Trump for legal cover.

“In failing to deliver for people of faith, President Trump risks alienating the single constituency most responsible for his election,” said Brian S. Brown, president of the National Organization for Marriage, a group that has fought to stop same-sex marriage. “Quite strangely, he is rewarding L.G.B.T. extremists who strongly opposed his election.”

Ryan T. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation who specializes in religious liberty, said, “In reality, what Trump issued today is rather weak.”

The reaction from opponents was also telling. Two groups that had threatened to sue the White House over the new order, the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen, backed off after seeing the text. Anthony D. Romero, the executive director of the A.C.L.U., called the signing of the order “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”

Another group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes separation between church and state, did file a lawsuit in federal court in Wisconsin on Thursday, saying the president was favoring religious groups over secular nonprofits.

The two-page executive order does address religious objections to the Obama administration’s mandate in the Affordable Care Act requiring employers to cover contraceptives in their insurance plans. It directs the secretaries of the Treasury and the departments of labor and health and human services to “consider issuing amended regulations.”

Tom Price, the secretary of health and human services, said Thursday that the department would be “taking action in short order to follow the president’s instruction,” but offered no details.

The executive order pleased the Roman Catholic nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who took their fight against the contraception mandate to the Supreme Court. The Obama administration had offered the Sisters a waiver to remove themselves from direct involvement in covering contraception, but the Sisters said it still violated their religious beliefs. The nuns and some conservative religious groups contend that some contraceptives induce abortions, and the mandate has been challenged in multiple court cases.

Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, a law firm that represented the Little Sisters, said Thursday: “We’re very happy with the order today. The only way we’d be disappointed is if the agencies did not carry it out.”

Mr. Trump signed the order in a sunny ceremony in the Rose Garden on the National Day of Prayer, surrounded by smiling religious leaders from a broad variety of faiths who repeatedly rose to their feet and applauded.

“For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even pushing Americans for following their religious beliefs,” he told them. “You are now in a position where you can say what you want to say.”

To the nuns in the audience, Mr. Trump said: “Your long ordeal will soon be over, O.K.? It’s been a long, hard ordeal.”

Many of those in the audience were members of Mr. Trump’s evangelical advisory board, a group of pastors and ministry leaders who stood by him during his presidential campaign last year. They were treated to a celebratory dinner with Mr. Trump and members of his family in the White House on Wednesday night, and many of them came away saying they were thrilled.

Mr. Trump was expected to sign an executive order on religious liberty early in his first hundred days. A draft order that leaked in February was so sweeping that it set off alarm bells among liberal and gay rights groups, while delighting conservatives involved in conflicts over religious liberty.

But according to two senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid divulging their conversations with the president, that draft did not rise to the attention of Mr. Trump or his senior aides until some news outlets began reporting that the president might sign it. The White House then promptly issued a statement insisting that Mr. Trump was “proud” of his public statements in support of gay people. This week he told aides that his opinion on the matter had not changed, despite the pressure from some conservatives.

The order’s biggest effects on religious life could come through its directives on partisan politicking by houses of worship.

Since 1954, the Johnson Amendment, promoted by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, has threatened religious organizations and charities with loss of their tax-exempt status if they endorse or oppose political candidates. In reality, this was rarely enforced and the I.R.S. rarely investigated.

Though Mr. Trump’s order cannot change the law, it directs the Treasury Department not to take “any adverse action” against a violator “to the extent permitted by law.”

Lloyd Mayer, a Notre Dame law professor who specializes in churches, politics and tax law, said some would argue that the order “doesn’t change anything, because the I.R.S. has been very wary of enforcing the Johnson Amendment.”

But, he added, “there is the risk that it will open the door for people to create arguably fake churches — the Church of Obama, the Church of Trump — and use that as a mechanism to obtain anonymous, tax-deductible contributions which can then be spent on political activity.”

Jennifer Copeland, executive director of the North Carolina Council of Churches, and a United Methodist minister in Raleigh, said that she could foresee situations in which a donor offered to build a family life center for a church in exchange for supporting his favored candidate. “The church will become its own ‘super PAC,’” she said.

A broad swath of religious leaders representing 99 religious organizations sent a letter to members of Congress last month urging them to preserve the Johnson Amendment. The signers included Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Unitarians, Quakers, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and Hindus.

Even evangelical leaders opposed lifting the restriction: A survey by the National Association of Evangelicals released in February found that 90 percent of their board members believed pastors should not endorse candidates from the pulpit.

The American public is also opposed. A poll by the Pew Research Center in 2016 found that though many Americans favor allowing churches and houses of worship to take positions on political and social issues, two-thirds are opposed to having churches endorse candidates. That percentage has held steady for eight years.

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