President Donald J. Trump had quite a week as more scandals involving Russia, his family and his campaign unfolded. But that didn’t stop him from finding time to talk to Religious Right leaders and do a news interview with Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network. All the while, his administration and friends in Congress were taking steps to implement the campaign promises he made to allow churches to endorse candidates and to allow religious freedom laws to be used to discriminate.
You can see this playing out on multiple fronts right now and AU has been helping to resist all of them.
On Monday, Religious Right leaders were called to White House for an all-day “listening session” with White House officials to talk about topics ranging from health care and judicial nominees to foreign policy and, of course, religious liberty. They also joined Trump in the Oval Office for a meeting and prayed with Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. It was clearly more than a photo opportunity: One of the people in the room explained that the Religious Right has a “substantive relationship” with the Trump administration and that they have an “open door” to the White House.
Later in the week, Trump sat down for an interview with Robertson. Trump praised Robertson: “You have a tremendous audience. You have people that I love – evangelicals.” By which he probably means the 80% of white evangelicals who voted for him. Then Trump touted how he’s “helping” this part of his base: by getting rid of the Johnson Amendment. He says it would allow Religious Right leaders to become more politically involved, which he declared would be a “great thing for Christianity” (even though, of course, they don’t actually represent most Christians).
Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in Congress were working to cripple enforcement of the Johnson Amendment – effectively giving houses of worship a pass to violate the law. A House committee had the chance to keep the Johnson Amendment’s protections in place, and although it had bipartisan support, they voted it down. Now, the entire House of Representatives will consider the bill with that troubling provision to severely weaken the Johnson Amendment.
Johnnie Moore, a former Liberty University executive, tweeted this photo of evangelical faith leaders praying with Trump and Pence in the White House.
But repealing the Johnson Amendment is really only on the wishlist of a few Religious Right leaders who want political power. The law is widely supported by religious and denomination organizations, faith leaders and other non-profits, as well as the vast majority of Americans. That is because it protects the right of houses of worship to speak out about political and social issues while, at the same time, ensuring they are not pressured by political candidates and campaigns to take a side in divisive partisan elections.
Also last week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to a conference held by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). This legal group is our frequent foe. It’s at the helm of many of the cases brought by businesses that want to use religion as an excuse to discriminate against customers, including Masterpiece Cakeshop, which will be heard by the Supreme Court in the fall, and Arlene’s Flowers, which ADF asked the Supreme Court to review on Friday. And it’s defending the truly harmful Mississippi law known as HB 1523 that allows religion to be used as a reason to treat some Mississippians as second-class citizens.
In his speech, Sessions announced something ADF and others on the Religious Right have been eagerly awaiting: He will soon issue guidance on federal religious freedom protections. But we know what that really means: religious freedom laws will be used as an excuse to deny the rights of other people – LGBTQ people and women, but also against religious minorities, nontheists and almost anyone else. Our laws, though, should be a shield to protect religious freedom and not a sword to harm others in this way.
This all happened in just one week. Bottom line: There is a serious threat to religious freedom. AU is gearing up for the long haul because there is a lot at stake.