WASHINGTON – Seeking to appeal to social conservatives who backed him in heavy numbers, President Trump will issue an executive order Thursday designed to "protect and vigorously promote religious liberty" and "alleviate the burden" of a law designed to prohibit religious leaders from speaking out about politics, according to senior administration officials.
The order aims to make it easier for employers with religious objections not to include contraception coverage in workers' health care plans, although it would be up to federal agencies to determine how that would happen.
It would also ease IRS enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which says tax-exempt religious organizations cannot participate in political activity. While only Congress can formally do away with the law, this will pave the way for churches and other religious leaders to speak about politics and endorse candidates without worrying about losing their tax-exempt status.
Although the White House released few details of the executive order, which is not as sweeping as a draft leaked earlier this year, civil liberties groups are already gearing up for a fight.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign had said earlier in the day they plan to immediately file legal challenges against the order, if it is as broad as a draft that leaked earlier this year. Before details about the order were released, they expressed concerns that Trump's actions would encourage employers to deny birth control services in their health plans, and could enable discrimination against gays and religious minorities.
Trump is expected to sign the executive order on Thursday, which is the National Day of Prayer. And religious conservatives appeared fired up for the signing. “There could be no better day to sign an executive order on religious freedom than the National Day of Prayer,” said Mat Staver who heads the Liberty Counsel, a legal group that has fought against same-sex marriage.
And Vice President Pence, who set off a national firestorm when he signed a religious freedom law as governor of Indiana in 2015, was scheduled to host members of the White House’s “Evangelical Advisory Board” at a White House dinner Wednesday.
Yet the opposition has begun: Gay and civil rights advocates protested in front of the White House Wednesday, saying the pending executive order is the latest Trump administration action that attacks the rights of immigrants, Muslims, women and members of the LGBTQ community.
And campaign-finance watchdog groups on Wednesday night denounced Trump’s move to ease the Treasury Department’s enforcement of the so-called Johnson amendment.
"President Trump seems to believe the law is whatever he says it is,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.
“He attacks judges and the courts for interpreting the law differently than what he pronounces the laws to be and now he appears to be trying to nullify laws by not having them enforced,” he said. “The Trump administration is rapidly becoming a lawless administration.”
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Brigitte Amiri said earlier in the day the group was "exploring all options," including suing the government, in response to an easing of enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.
Religious conservatives have long pushed Trump to renew what they say is an “appreciation for religious freedom” they say the Obama administration undermined despite a law created in 1993 to protect religious freedom.
“It’s simply bringing the federal government back in line with [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act],” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said last month about the need for an executive order.
Though conservatives may be hoping for that, a senior administration official said that Thursday's order is not about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but did not say whether there would be another executive order addressing that law.
During his campaign, Trump pledged that the “first priority of my administration will be to preserve and protect our religious liberty.”
Religious conservatives, though, waited anxiously for action – and some were disappointed when the White House announced in January that Trump would not undo President Obama’s executive order protecting employees from anti-LGBTQ workplace discrimination while working for federal contractors.
The administration emphasized at the time that Trump is proud to be the first Republican nominee to mention the LGBTQ community in his nomination acceptance speech and “is determined to protect the rights of all Americans, including the LGBTQ community.”
Perkins said last month the expected religious freedom executive order has been delayed in part because “there are some counterviews” within the administration about whether it’s necessary.
But he was optimistic it will come, and that Pence would provide “solid counsel that will be in line with what a lot of evangelicals feel and think.”
The state religious freedom law Pence backed as Indiana’s governor sparked a backlash over whether it would allow florists, bakers and others to deny services to gays and lesbians.
Those are not the services that would be affected by the executive order – at least as initially drafted, civil liberties lawyers said.
However, the groups remain concerned that Trump's directives – now or in the future – will affect organizations which receive a significant amount of federal funding to provide services such as homeless shelters, hospice care, and child welfare services, the Human Rights Campaign's Warbelow said.
After all, the leaked draft version of the order from earlier this year would allow those organizations to discriminate against the LGBTQ community, she said. A hospital, for example, could refuse to allow a same-sex partner to visit a dying spouse. A child welfare organization could refuse to place a child in care of a same-sex couple.
Federal workers could also discriminate, she said, such as refusing to process spousal benefits for the spouse of a same-sex couple. “There is an intention here to allow federal employees to utilize their religious views on the subject matters in the course of their jobs."
The American Civil Liberties Union said the draft executive order would hurt women by allowing “almost any employer” to exclude contraceptive coverage – and other preventive care benefits required by the Affordable Care Act – from their insurance plans.
“This is discrimination against women plain and simple,” said the ACLU's Amiri.
The ACLU is looking at “multiple opportunities” for challenging the executive order in court, she said, “because this is so clearly a violation of the Constitution.”
Contributing: Fredreka Schouten.