The National Prayer Breakfast is tomorrow. President Donald Trump will speak, and it’s pretty much a given that he’ll use the event to divide the American people on religious lines and foster the use of religion to discriminate. But religious freedom is about fairness – it isn’t about using religion to harm other people.
At last year’s prayer breakfast – an annual private event sponsored by a shadowy Religious Right group called the Fellowship Foundation – Trump had only been in office for a few weeks and had no accomplishments to brag about, so he focused on what he planned to do. This included his now-infamous vow to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”
The Johnson Amendment is a federal law that protects the integrity of tax-exempt organizations, including houses of worship, by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose political candidates. Trump and his Religious Right allies want to weaken or do away with it so misguided politicians can exploit the tax-exempt status of religious communities for their own ends. But Trump’s effort to divide Americans didn’t work: Polls show that Americans don’t want our charities and houses of worship to be divided by partisan campaign politics – and that includes our clergy.
A few months after the prayer breakfast, Trump issued an executive order that he claimed did several things, among them undermining the Johnson Amendment. The order didn’t do that. The Johnson Amendment is a federal law, and it would take an act of Congress to overturn it.
Not that Congress isn’t trying. Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment in the tax bill failed, but it looks like another attempt could be coming down the pike in the spending bill Congress is still trying to negotiate. That’s why Americans United has joined 144 organizations in telling Congress to keep the Johnson Amendment intact.
There’s a good chance Trump will also talk about the state of religious freedom generally. He’ll take credit for being its stalwart protector. Of course, he hasn’t done that. Instead, he’s just offered more division and discrimination.
In the Masterpiece Cakeshop case that’s pending before the Supreme Court, Trump’s Justice Department sided with a bakery in Colorado that wants the right to use religion as an excuse to deny services to LGBTQ people. Under Trump, one of our country’s most noble and important principles – religious freedom – has been turned into a cover for ugly forms of discrimination.
Trump has also attacked women’s access to important health care services, again insisting that this somehow promotes religious freedom. New regulations allow universities, nonprofits and corporations to deny women access to birth control due to religious or moral objections. This means workers’ health care is subject to their boss’s religious veto. The policy is being vigorously challenged in court; in fact, two federal courts have blocked the rules from going into effect.
More recently, Trump’s Department of Health and Human Service has proposed a rule to allow health care workers to use religion to refuse to provide patients medical care. This means women facing crisis pregnancies, members of the transgender community and others could be denied essential, life-saving treatment.
And of course there’s Trump’s appalling Muslim ban. At the prayer breakfast, there’s a good chance he’ll claim that his scheme to deny people the right to travel to the United States simply because they are Muslim somehow protects us. But naked bigotry never makes us safer – it merely erodes our values and tarnishes our country’s proud legacy as a beacon of religious liberty. Here we see more division. More discrimination.
Playing to his Religious Right base, Trump will also very likely lard on some talk about the importance of faith and family, throw in a Bible verse or two that someone dug up for him and maybe even repeat his inane comment that Americans worship God, not government. Of course, no one in the Religious Right will dare to point out that the president spends Sunday mornings on the golf course, not in church, or that his personal behavior is far removed from what Jesus would do.
We don’t know for sure what Trump will say tomorrow, but it’s almost guaranteed that much of it will be based on bluster and falsehood. You can be certain of this: Americans United will be listening, and we’ll respond immediately. We won’t sit idly by while Trump tries to use religion to divide this nation and discriminate against our family, neighbors and friends.
Count on it.