U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on religious freedom Thursday at a National Day of Prayer event.
A handout distributed to journalists by the White House late Wednesday said the order “declares that it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”
Christian conservatives have been hoping to see a sweeping executive order that would permit groups and business owners to cite their religious faith as a reason to refuse services and goods to people.
“This executive order isn’t about discrimination,” said a senior administration official briefing reporters late Wednesday. “Anything currently illegal under current law would still be illegal.”
Legal challenges planned
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign said they plan to immediately file legal challenges against the order, if it is as broad as a draft that leaked earlier this year. They’re concerned Trump’s actions will enable discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community and religious minorities, and allow many employers to deny birth control services in the health care plans they offer to workers.
The White House handout said the order will provide “regulatory relief to religious objectors to Obamacare’s burdensome preventive services mandate,” which requires employers to provide access to birth control in the health care plans they offer to employees.
The official added, “It provides regulatory relief for religious objectors to Obamacare’s burdensome preventive services mandate, which is a position supported by the Supreme Court decision in Hobby Lobby.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case, saying that certain employers could, on religious grounds, choose not to pay for employee contraception, which was mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
Sarah Warbelow, Human Rights Campaign’s legal director, said, “If this executive order is anything like the one that was leaked in February, it would create an unprecedented license to discriminate with taxpayers’ funds, undermine women’s health care and elevate one narrow set of religious beliefs over all others.
“It would promote and encourage discrimination by government contractors’ employees against people who are LGBTQ, as well as open the door to a wide range of discrimination against women, unmarried couples, single parents and religious minorities,” Warbelow added.
Trump has promised to “totally destroy’’ an Internal Revenue Service regulation that threatens the loss of tax-exempt status for religious organizations and other nonprofits that endorse political candidates.
The White House handout said the order will direct the IRS to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment.”
The regulation, named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, was enacted in 1954 and prohibits partisan political activity for churches and other tax-exempt organizations. It still allows for advocacy on a wide range of political issues, but it bars outright electioneering and political endorsements by religious organizations.
If signed, the executive order will represent a major triumph for Vice President Mike Pence, whose push for religious-freedom legislation backfired during his tenure as Indiana governor.