Flanked by members of his Evangelical Advisory Board, President Donald Trump on May 3 used the occasion of the National Day of Prayer to take another shot at the wall of separation between church and state.
Speaking during a Rose Garden ceremony, Trump unveiled a new “religious freedom” directive titled “Executive Order on the Establishment of a White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative.”
Members of Americans United’s Legislative Department analyzed the order and found it to be problematic. They noted that though the order talks about religious freedom, it’s really just another vehicle to allow people to use religion as grounds for discrimination.
The order also changes existing regulations designed to protect people who use government-funded social service programs that are being handled by religious organizations.
Under rules drawn up by a bipartisan group of advisors who worked during the presidency of Barack Obama, people who are uncomfortable with the religious character of a faith-based provider have the right to access an alternative provider. The new Trump order strips away that protection.
The order also mandates the creation of “Faith and Opportunity” offices in every federal agency and department. The primary job of these offices will be to enforce a document produced by the U.S. Department of Justice that purports to protect religious freedom but that really promotes discrimination. As Americans United has noted, the guidance interprets the law in a manner designed to foster religious exemptions, regardless of how these exemptions would affect other people or the public interest.
In a post about the order on AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog, AU Legislative Director Maggie Garrett noted that the guidance “explicitly states that faith-based organizations may accept taxpayer dollars to perform social services and use those funds to discriminate in hiring.”
Garrett added, “And we know some government contractors want to cite religion to refuse to provide vital services required under their contract, like reproductive health care to victims of sexual assault.”
The Faith and Opportunity offices will also be charged with identifying and reducing “barriers” that supposedly keep faith-based groups from interacting with the government and eliminating “burdens on the exercise of religious convictions.”
But as Garrett and others have noted, these barriers are largely imaginary. Faith-based organizations deliver social services on behalf of the government all the time, and most have no difficulty abiding by applicable laws.
Michelle Boorstein, a reporter for The Washington Post, quoted a spokesman for Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board who said the administration is less concerned with “where the church-state barriers are” and thinks government should work with religious groups “without all of these arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate.”
As Americans United and other critics of faith-based initiatives have pointed out over the years, what the spokesman called “arbitrary concerns” may be things mandated by the Constitution.
Americans United noted that this is the second year running that Trump has used the National Day of Prayer to undermine church-state separation. Last year, he issued an executive order that, among other things, purported to weaken the Johnson Amendment, a federal law that bars nonprofits, including houses of worship, from intervening in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
Trump referenced the 2017 order at this year’s event, calling the Johnson Amendment “a disaster” and insisting he had overturned it. (He also once again claimed that more people are saying “Merry Christmas” and took credit for it.) In fact, the provision in the 2017 order about the Johnson Amendment was mostly verbiage and had no practical effect on the law.
AU criticized Trump’s new order, saying it erodes religious freedom rather than safeguards it.
“For the second year in a row, President Trump is using the National Day of Prayer to divide and discriminate,” said Rachel Laser, AU’s president and CEO. “Today’s order is one more attempt by Trump, cheered by his Evangelical Advisory Board, to redefine religious freedom to mean the freedom to discriminate against those who do not share your religious beliefs. It boils down to religious freedom for all versus religious freedom for a select few.”