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Long-awaited Executive Order on Religion Has Unclear Path Ahead

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Long-awaited Executive Order on Religion Has Unclear Path Ahead

WASHINGTON (CNS) — At a White House Rose Garden ceremony
May 4, President Donald Trump told a group of religious leaders: “It was
looking like you’d never get here, but you got here, folks,” referring to their
presence at the signing of the executive order on religious liberty.

And maybe some in the group wondered where “here” was since they hadn’t even
seen the two-page executive order they were gathered to congratulate and only knew
the general idea of it from a White House memo issued the previous night with
just three bullet points.

The order didn’t seem to part any seas to make an immediate path to religious freedom,
especially since it places decisions for how this will play out in the hands of
federal agencies and the attorney general.

Catholic leaders in general seemed to view it with cautious optimism, praising the order
as a first step but not the final word.

Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops, who attended the White House ceremony also celebrating the National Day of Prayer, said immediately after the event that he had yet to see the entire
executive order. He defined the principle of it: “There should not be an
overly intrusive federal government” involved when people are exercising
their religious freedom in the public square or institutions they run.

The two-page order, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” was posted on
the White House website hours after it was signed. It is half the length of a
leaked draft version of this order published Feb. 1 in The Nation magazine. The
order signed by the president is short on specifics and far less detailed than
the leaked draft.

It devotes the most space to a promised easing of the Johnson Amendment — a 1954 law that bans churches and nonprofit organizations with tax-exempt status from taking
part in partisan political activity. Although it would take an act of Congress
to do away with this regulation, Trump can direct the Internal Revenue Service not
to enforce it.

Many people likely aren’t familiar with the amendment by name, or they weren’t
before this executive order, but they support the idea of it, according to a
May 4 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.

The poll shows 71 percent of Americans favor the law, as do most all major U.S. religious
groups Only about one-third of white evangelical Protestants favor allowing
churches to endorse candidates, compared to 56 percent who oppose it. Also, just
23 percent of white mainline Protestants, 25 percent of Catholics and 19
percent of black Protestants support churches endorsing political candidates.

In an interview with Catholic News Service at Reagan National Airport May 4 on his
way back to his diocese for a confirmation Mass, Cardinal DiNardo said the amendment
was likely more important to evangelical Christians than Catholics because, as
he pointed out, the Catholic Church “has the tradition of ‘Faithful
Citizenship,'” which he said puts the Johnson Amendment in a bigger
context.

“Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops’ quadrennial document
on political responsibility, guides voters not according to the stances of
specific political candidates but Catholic social teaching.

Richard Garnett, professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, said in an email to
Catholic News Service that the order’s emphasis on weakening the Johnson
Amendment did not seem particularly significant, noting: “it is already
the case that the relevant agencies and officials are highly deferential — as
they should be — to churches and religious leaders, especially when it comes
to what’s said in the context of sermons and homilies.”

Commenting on another major point of the executive order — relief to employers with religious objections to include contraception coverage in their employees’ health care
plans — Garnett called it “a good thing — and long overdue,” but he
also noted that “such regulatory relief was already probably on its way,
as a result of the Supreme Court’s decisions.”

In a statement after the order was signed, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom
Price promised to take action “in short order” to “safeguard the
deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their
employees.” The promise didn’t give any specifics.

The lack of details in the order even caused the American Civil Liberties Union, which
had been poised to sue, to change its course. In a statement issued hours after
the order’s signing, ACLU director Anthony Romero said the order had “no
discernible policy outcome.”

“After careful review of the order’s text, we have determined that the order does not
meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to
intervene in the political process,” he said.

But the group also stands ready to sue the Trump administration if the order generates
any official government action. Religious groups, for opposite reasons, likewise
stand ready to see if the order has any teeth.

As Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said in a statement: “This order
marks an important step in restoring those constitutional principles guaranteed
to every American,” with the added caveat, “There is still work to be
done.”

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Contributing
to this story was Chaz Muth.

– – –

Follow
Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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