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President Donald Trump has signed an executive order designed to give greater leeway to people seeking religious-based exemptions.
Created to coincide with the National Day of Prayer on Thursday, the order also touts that faith-based groups have a strong advocate working on their behalf in the federal government.
“As president, I will always protect religious liberty,” Trump told faith leaders during a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden. “Prayer has always been the center of American life. It’s forged the identity and destiny of this great nation that we all love.”
Trump’s executive order creates the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative, a newly formed office that will make recommendations to the Trump administration on how best to protect the “religious liberty” of people who seek religious exemptions from having to provide services that they believe violate their religious beliefs. The office will also report any instances where the office has failed to uphold religious liberty protections.
Under the order, all executive departments and agencies that do not currently have Centers for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives will designate liaisons to the initiative.
The intent of the order is to ensure that people with sincerely held personal religious beliefs can exercise their beliefs freely without government interference, and that faith-based organizations can access government funding.
To ensure that, the federal government — specifically the Treasury Department — will be prohibited from penalizing or denying special benefits, such as tax breaks, to individuals, churches, or religious organizations that speak out about moral or political issues, reports Christian Broadcasting Network News.
Those provisions echo a similar executive order that Trump issued last year that allows religious organizations and churches to get involved in the political sphere without the threat of losing their tax-exempt status.
“It’s really crystal clear that this is inviting and encouraging federal dollars to flow to organizations that discriminate,” notes Lambda Legal CEO Rachel Tiven. That said, she’s not surprised that the administration went as far as it did.
“We’ve been preparing for precisely this kind of attack since the day after the election,” she says.
Tiven believes the executive order runs afoul of the Establishment Clause, and notes that any religious exemptions could be exercised not just against LGBTQ people, but other classes of people, based on their religion, race, marital status, or other characteristics.
“I think what’s really notable is that in previous drafts, there was language about referrals to alternatives providers. That’s no longer in the order,” she says. “So for a homeless kid who is turned away from an emergency shelter because he’s gay, when he asks where else he can go, this order is encouraging the shelter to say, ‘Don’t know, not my problem.'”
Tiven also notes that recent surveys, including a PRRI survey on attitudes toward LGBTQ rights from the 2017 American Values Atlas, show that most Americans do not favor giving religious objections to people who would use them to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
“This is the Pence administration paying off its base,” says Tiven. “Most Americans don’t want this, and I think a lot of people see it as a slippery slope.”
Other civil rights organizations also expressed concern over the new executive order.
“Freedom of religion is one of our most fundamental and cherished rights,” Daniel Mach, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said in a statement. “But that freedom does not give any of us the right to harm other people, to impose our beliefs on others, or to discriminate. The ACLU will be watching this initiative closely to ensure that it does not promote policies that violate these core principles.”
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