President Donald Trump just signed an executive order purporting to protect so-called religious freedom, in part by weakening tax code restrictions on churches and religious groups, allowing them to actively engage in political activity without losing their nonprofit status. While the order falls short of directly targeting LGBTQ people -- as many expected it would do -- it’s still a victory for anti-LGBTQ hate groups, which have been lobbying for such a shift for years.
On May 4, Trump signed an executive order allegedly protecting religious freedom. The order directs the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.” The Johnson Amendment is a 1954 law stating that churches and other tax-exempt organizations are “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Despite the claims by anti-LGBTQ hate groups that the amendment stifles “free speech” by pastors and churches, it is rarely enforced. As NPR noted earlier this year, opposition to the amendment isn’t really about “free speech” -- it’s about “money and politics.” Last August, The Atlantic explained the effects of overturning the Johnson Amendment:
Pastors would be able to endorse candidates from the pulpit, which they’re currently not allowed to do by law. But it’s also true that a lot more money could possibly flow into politics via donations to churches and other religious organizations. That could mean religious groups would become much more powerful political forces in American politics—and it would almost certainly tee up future court battles.
The group leading the national push for repealing the Johnson Amendment -- the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) -- has been designated as an anti-LGBTQ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for working to criminalize LGBTQ people, both domestically and abroad, as well as disseminating “disparaging propaganda and falsehoods” to advance its extremist agenda.
ADF, which has previously explained that it “seeks to recover the robust Christendomic theology of the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries,” has led an annual “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” in opposition to the Johnson Amendment since 2008. The Washington Post reported that ADF’s “Pulpit Freedom” initiative has encouraged over 2,000 clergy members -- mainly evangelical Christians -- to “deliberately” violate the law since 2008 -- and none of the 2,000 were punished by the IRS. Yet the hate group’s efforts are sweepingly out of step with public opinion, as 90 percent of evangelical leaders do not think pastors should endorse politicians, and nearly 80 percent of Americans think it is inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church.
Despite little public support to repeal the Johnson Amendment, ADF and other anti-LGBTQ hate groups have redoubled their efforts against it since Trump won the election. Some of those actions included:
- ADF senior counsel Erik Stanley wrote an op-ed in The Hill outlining “three reasons to support changing the Johnson Amendment”;
- the anti-LGBTQ hate group Family Reseach Council openly boasted in a March action alert that it worked with Republican House representatives to introduce the “Free Speech Fairness Act” to repeal the Johnson Amendment;
- ADF’s Erik Stanley and FRC President Tony Perkins lauded Trump’s vow to “totally destroy” the amendment in statements to The New York Times; and
- Liberty Counsel, another anti-LGBTQ hate group, listed repealing the Johnson Amendment as one of its goals for 2017 in a fundraising alert.
Today, ADF senior counsel Gregory Baylor released a statement saying that Trump’s order does not go far enough to “protect” religious freedom. Baylor advocated for a full repeal of the Johnson Amendment through legislative action, as did FRC general counsel for government affairs Mandi Ancalle and ADF legal counsel Christiana Holcomb at a congressional hearing today titled “Examining A Church’s Right To Free Speech.” Baylor also lamented that the order didn’t include “specific relief” for business owners who hold “a religious point of view on marriage that differed from that of the federal government,” i.e. no license to discriminate against LGBTQ people.
Anti-LGBTQ hate groups have so far been successful in furthering their desired policies under Trump, thanks to having representatives and alumni deeply embedded in his administration. FRC senior fellow Ken Blackwell served as the domestic policy chair on the Trump transition team, along with former FRC staffer Ken Klukowski, who was the team’s “constitutional rights” leader and claimed to have helped draft today’s order. FRC's Perkins -- who was at the Rose Garden signing today -- came to embrace Trump as a “teachable” candidate whom Perkins could “shape.”
Recently, Trump appointed Charmaine Yoest -- former vice president of FRC -- as assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In January, Trump appointed former ADF senior counsel Matt Bowman as an HHS special assistant.
Anti-LGBTQ hate groups will, in all likelihood, continue to use their high-level connections to push for a broad legislative repeal of the Johnson Amendment, as well as another “religious freedom” executive order that would allow for government employees and contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ people and their families.
Image by Dayanita Ramesh.