Today, Americans United told the Trump administration to shut down the president’s Evangelical Advisory Board until it complies with federal sunshine laws.
Trump has given the advisory board, made up solely of a narrow slice of conservative evangelical faith leaders, unprecedented access to the White House and influence over policy. It “pays regular visits to the White House, which can start with policy briefings from West Wing staff and agency officials and end with impromptu visits to the Oval Office.” And according to Johnnie Moore, the spokesman for the advisory board, it has a “pretty significant” hand in “directing or affecting” administration policy.” Moore has identified a “long list of progress” the advisory board has made with the administration “on policy and personnel decisions particularly affecting religious liberty, judges, the right to life and foreign policy.”
As Trump explained to 100 evangelical leaders on Monday night when he hosted a “state dinner” in their honor at the White House: In exchange for their “incredible” support, he said, “I have given you a lot back, just about everything I promised. And as one of our great pastors just said, ‘Actually, you’ve given us much more, sir, than you promised.’” (For specifics on this, see this timeline of the Trump administration's attacks on religious freedom that AU has created.)
While the advisory board has unprecedented access to and influence on the administration, the public – those who are actually affected by its recommendations – has absolutely no access to or influence on it. That isn’t just a bad and unfair way to make public policy, it also violates federal law.
That’s why today Americans United wrote to the Trump administration to tell it to shut down the advisory board until it complies with a federal law – the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) – that requires transparency and public access. Specifically, the letter requests “that the Advisory Board cease meeting and providing advice to the President unless and until it fully complies with FACA, and that you produce to us certain documents relating to the Advisory Board.” Americans United also sent the Trump administration a Freedom of Information Act request to acquire documents related to the board that should be public.
In 1972, Congress passed FACA to ensure that presidential advisory boards are “objective and accessible to the public.” The public has a right to know whether and how special-interest groups are influencing federal policy decisions that affect all Americans. Among other things, an advisory board must make their meetings and records available to the public.
But little is known about Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board. We don’t know when they meet, who they meet with or what they discuss, unless of course, members of the advisory board choose to tell the press. We know from media reports, for example, that while the White House’s decision to ban transgender people from serving in the military surprised the public, it did not surprise the Evangelical Advisory Board because the board proposed the ban to the president just days before at one of their meetings. We also know that Moore, not White House staff, spoke to the press about the president’s 2018 “religious liberty” executive order before the document was released to the public.
The advisory board is clearly making substantive policy for the administration and must adhere to FACA’s transparency requirements.
Some may wonder how this advisory board is different from President Obama’s Faith-based and Neighborhood Advisory Councils. We should note that Americans United opposed the creation of the Obama councils, but these advisory boards couldn’t be more different.
First, whereas Trump’s board is made up of leaders from one narrow set of religious beliefs, Obama’s advisory councils included people of many different religions (including evangelicals) and the nonreligious, as well as representatives of secular nonprofits. The favored status Trump gives to evangelicals over all others is deeply troubling. In addition, Obama’s advisory councils included both people who agreed and disagreed with him on policy. Trump’s advisory board consists only of unabashed Trump supporters.
Second, Obama’s council adhered to FACA. Once Joshua DuBois, Obama’s first director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, was made aware that the council’s meetings must be properly noticed and open to the public, he adhered to the federal law. Trump’s board continues to act in secrecy.
Third, Obama provided his councils with clear and discrete missions and each council produced reports to the president that were well publicized. Trump’s board appears to have influence on any and all issues, domestic and international.
Trump’s board wants to craft policies that affect all Americans – policies that are harming people and reflect the narrow interpretation of Christianity favored by the board’s members. They want to do this in secret, behind closed doors and away from public scrutiny.
That’s not right, and Americans United intends to correct it by compelling the administration to adhere to the sunshine laws that apply to all presidential advisory boards.
(Photo: President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence pray with members of the Evangelical Advisory Board in the Oval Office in September 2017. Credit: Screenshot from C-SPAN.)