Trump Issues Executive Order Designed To Protect Religious Freedom

May 4, 2017
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

President Trump rolled out a long-awaited executive order today. He said it would protect Americans' religious freedom from government interference.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith.

SIEGEL: This executive order is controversial. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports that liberals and conservatives alike are not happy with it.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Many evangelical Christians have long wanted religious people to have more freedom to act on their religious beliefs, more freedom, for example, to reject same-sex unions and transgender identities. A draft executive order that supported that principle, circulated three months ago, delighted conservatives but horrified civil rights groups. In announcing his executive order today, Trump appeared ready to announce something like that draft order. The federal government, he said, will never ever penalize someone for their religious beliefs.

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TRUMP: That is why I am today directing the Department of Justice to develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans.

GJELTEN: Trump's actual order, however, only directed the Justice Department to, quote, "issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law." Evangelicals were not impressed.

RYAN ANDERSON: This doesn't address the pressing needs on religious liberty that exist today.

GJELTEN: Ryan Anderson is a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.

ANDERSON: It's unclear why the executive order didn't contain the language that was in the leaked draft of the executive order back in February.

GJELTEN: To civil rights groups, that draft order would essentially have given organizations a free license to discriminate against LGBT individuals and raised constitutional issues by appearing to favor some religious beliefs over others. Trump chose instead to focus on his vigorous opposition to the Johnson Amendment which sets limits on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

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TRUMP: Under this rule, if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status.

GJELTEN: Actually, this is a major overstatement. The Johnson Amendment only prohibits religious people and institutions from endorsing political candidates. It does not restrict clergy from speaking on issues of public or political importance. And many clergy support the law. Rabbi David Saperstein, who served as President Obama's ambassador for International Religious Freedom, told a congressional committee today that clergy making political endorsements would further polarize religious communities.

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DAVID SAPERSTEIN: What is a pastor to if a congregant who's a major donor says, I'll give you the gift this year but only if you endorse such a candidate? What do you do if the pastor endorses one candidate and then someone else wants someone else or a member of the congregation asks?

GJELTEN: Trump's order does direct the secretary of Health and Human Services to consider new regulations for implementing the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare. Most employers are currently required to provide birth control services. Some religious groups, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, have long fought that requirement, and several nuns from that group were in the Rose Garden today, cheering Trump's support for their cause. Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.