Friday, May 5, 2017

"Religious Liberty" Executive Order Signed

As it turned out, the "Religious Liberty" executive order signed by President Trump yesterday wasn't anything like the laughably unconstitutional draft order leaked earlier this week, which singled out specific conservative Evangelical Christian beliefs as the only form of "religious liberty" worthy of protection. Instead, it turned out to be a totally different bad idea, a move to weaken the Johnson Amendment that limits the political activity of churches.

Trump approved the measure in the Rose Garden at the White House surrounded by clergy and leaders of faith organizations during a National Day of Prayer event. “Today my administration is leading by example as we take historic steps to protect religious liberty in the United States of America,” the president said. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”

The measure is designed to ease enforcement of a provision in the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment that bars religious institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates and parties. It directs the IRS to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion” of the amendment, according to the White House. Additionally, it orders regulatory relief for those who object to ObamaCare’s preventive service mandate on religious grounds.

Trump is fulfilling a promise he made to social conservatives, who strongly backed him during the 2016 campaign. Those groups have long argued that the Johnson Amendment violates their First Amendment rights. Scrapping the amendment was a major rallying cry for Trump on the campaign trail and he made it one of his earliest promises once he took office.

It is not exactly clear what "maximum enforcement discretion" will mean in the context of real-world cases, and the executive order does not have the force of law. To overturn the Johnson Amendment, Congress would have to pass legislation. But the order does signal that overturning the amendment remains one of the administration's priorities, as Trump repeatedly promised it would be during his campaign.

I won't re-hash my argument against repealing the Johnson Amendment in this post, since you can read it here, but basically, I expect that if the repeal goes through, many churches will start becoming more explicitly political and therefore less religious. For sincere spiritual seekers that would just be bad news, and it wouldn't surprise me to see "non-political" become a selling point for churches soon after - kind of like "non-denominational" did back in the 1980's.

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