President Trump has signed a much-anticipated executive order on religious freedom. Here are three things church leaders should know about this Order:
1. President Trump Made a Statement
Executive orders only bind the executive branch of government, can be overturned by future presidents and do not replace legislation. But, they are directives to the sprawling federal bureaucracy tasked with carrying out the laws of the land. For this reason, this Order should be celebrated. Prior to the last election, the Christian blogosphere was filled with hand-wringing about the future of religious freedom. The federal government seemed to honor religious freedom-unless it had a more important political priority. Given those well-founded fears about the last election, consider the following language from the executive order: “Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.” Though this is not a specific policy prescription, this executive order makes a strong statement about the importance of religious freedom.
2. This Order Provides Clarity on Protections for the Pulpit
The Order states, ““All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.” This Order specifically prohibits the IRS from enforcing the Johnson Amendment (a provision in the tax code dating back to 1954 that prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from participating or intervening in elections) against an individual or church that speaks about …”moral or political issues from a religious perspective.” This is a much-needed clarification. I have spoken to many pastors that fear losing their church’s tax-exempt status if they preach on an issue related to politics (such as race, poverty, abortion or marriage, etc.). Pastors should be free to preach God’s Word as they feel led, and this Order provides at least some temporary protection. This executive order does not change the Johnson Amendment (only Congress can do that), but it does at least provide some clarity for the first time since 1954.
3. This Order Does Not Address the Most Pressing Religious Freedom Concerns
Though Trumps’ Executive Order addresses conscience protections under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), it does not broadly address rights of conscience (the most pressing and controversial religious freedom issue). On this matter, the following tweet from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) provides an apt summary: “We thought we’d have to sue Trump today. But it turned out the order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”
In summary, we should be thankful that our federal government celebrates and protects religious freedom, but this Order does not provide significant policy changes or permanent solutions.