Trump Order Would Relax Restrictions On Political Activity By Religious Groups

May 4, 2017
Originally published on May 4, 2017 11:21 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The White House says President Trump is about to take a step toward keeping a promise today. Many times, the president has said he would get rid of a law that prohibits tax-exempt religious institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.

INSKEEP: That was the president earlier this year. Now, today, the president plans an executive order that's said to move in that direction. NPR's Tom Gjelten covers religion. He's in our studios. Good morning, Tom.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: How far does it move in that direction of getting rid of and totally destroying this law?

GJELTEN: Well, the president can't destroy a law. Only Congress can do that. This is part of the tax code. What the president can do, and what we understand from the White House he will do, is instruct the IRS to back off and enforcing it so vigorously.

INSKEEP: Meaning don't enforce it at all, don't enforce it so much?

GJELTEN: To use maximum discretion in enforcing it. So I guess it's up to the IRS to decide what that means.

INSKEEP: Was it being enforced a lot to begin with, Tom?

GJELTEN: No, it wasn't. It actually wasn't. There have been very few churches that have suffered the consequences of violating this. Interestingly enough, Steve, the Pew Research Center did a survey last fall and found that the churches most likely to be violating this were the African-American Protestant churches who were openly advocating for Hillary Clinton's candidacy from the pulpit.

INSKEEP: Which is really interesting because it's actually people on the other side of the political spectrum who have felt most bothered and constrained by this...

GJELTEN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...By this law. Now, that's not all that is going to be in this executive order, right?

GJELTEN: Couple more things - it will also ease the burden on religious groups, some of the burdens that flow from the Obamacare health care mandates. Those mandates were then interpreted by the Obama administration in terms of regulation. Some of those regulations will apparently be rescinded under the executive order, although the White House is not saying which regulations and how exactly they're going to be rescinded. And then the third thing - a very broad statement saying that the White House is now committed to a policy of protecting and vigorously promoting religious liberty - whatever that means.

INSKEEP: And that's something that virtually any president would probably say in some form. And it's just a question of what he means.

GJELTEN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: Let's bring another voice into the conversation because Greg Baylor is with us also. He's a senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which advocates for religious freedom on religious freedom issues. Thanks for coming by. Good morning.

GREGORY BAYLOR: It's great to be here.

INSKEEP: And for wearing a tie early in the morning, really appreciate that, really great. Was this executive order what you wanted?

BAYLOR: I would say that, you know, the two words that come to mind in seeing the outline of this upcoming executive order are disappointment and hope. There's disappointment because it's not all that we hoped that it would be. But we do have hope that this perhaps is just the first step in the Trump administration's effort to fulfill its campaign promise that he made on the campaign trail that he would fully protect religious freedom, that he would protect people like the Little Sisters, that he would stop his administration being something that really interferes significantly with the religious freedom of people.

INSKEEP: Well, let's ask about both parts of that. First, you said disappointed. It doesn't do very much. What is limiting about this executive order so far as we know, granted we don't have the text yet?

BAYLOR: Yeah, we have we don't have the text yet, but with regard to the HHS abortion pill mandate, all that it says is that it's going to provide regulatory relief. That is disappointingly vague, especially given how long we've had to discuss this issue. These lawsuits were filed, some of them back in 2012; many of them in 2013 and '14. And the answer to this problem has been quite obvious all along. What the administration needs to do is to craft an exemption that prohibits everyone who objects on religious and moral grounds from violating their convictions through the content of their health plan. This is the obvious answer, and it's not done in this executive order.

INSKEEP: Let's just remember what this debate is about. We're talking about women's contraception here. We're talking about private employers who are providing insurance. They're required to have some essential benefits as part of the insurance, and some people objected to providing contraception, and they want this exemption. That's what you're discussing here, right?

BAYLOR: Although there's one important distinction to point out. Many of the objectors did not object to contraceptive. Generally, they objected only to the ones that cause abortion. All of my Protestant clients object only to abortion. This is something that had never been mandated. It wasn't required to be mandated in the Affordable Care Act. And when the Obama administration implemented this, they tipped their hat to religious freedom by crafting an extraordinarily narrow religious exemption that only protected a few. And essentially, the case that we've been making all along is don't differentiate in the field of religious liberty. You should protect the normal class of religious organizations that are protected in other contexts.

INSKEEP: Tom Gjelten, is it possible to broaden the protections, the number of people who would be exempt from this regulation without actually changing the law?

GJELTEN: Yes, because the law didn't specify a lot of what Mr. Baylor is talking about. Those came in the regulations that the Obama administration put out for how to implement the law. So those regulations could be changed. They could be reversed. That's entirely up to this administration to do.

INSKEEP: Now, he also, Greg Baylor, just used the word hope, that he would like to see more. Is it your sense that there is a broad political base for driving on these issues considerably more?

GJELTEN: Oh, I think there definitely is. And I do have to say that we understand that as of 4 o'clock yesterday afternoon the executive order was not actually entirely written yet. So we've gotten very vague language here, very broad language. It's entirely possible that we're going to get more specifics later today when President Trump talks about this.

INSKEEP: And I imagine we can expect plenty of people on the other side of the debate from Mr. Baylor to weigh in as the days - as the day goes on.

BAYLOR: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: We'll see what happens there. Greg Baylor, thanks very much for coming by. I really appreciate it.

BAYLOR: My pleasure.

INSKEEP: He is with the Alliance Defending Freedom, which advocates on religious freedom issues. And NPR's Tom Gjelten covers religion for NPR. Tom, thanks to you.

GJELTEN: Good to see you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.