President Trump announced today that he would sign a “religious liberty” Executive Order (EO). “I am signing today an executive order to defend the freedom of religion and speech in America,” he asserted. The purpose of the EO is to allegedly grant more political freedom to religious organizations. But does this EO threaten secularism, i.e. the principle that Church and State must be separated?
What does the Executive Order do?
The President is directing the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exercise discretion when enforcing the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, found in the tax code, prohibits tax-exempt organizations – like churches, synagogues, and mosques – from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
If, say, a church campaigns in favor or against a political candidate, the church could lose its tax-exempt status. Some Republicans and certain religious groups have advocated against the Johnson Amendment on the grounds that it purportedly infringes their freedom of speech.
With this EO, President Trump is not getting rid of the Johnson Amendment. He does not have the power to repeal legislation. Congress has that power. President Trump is essentially telling the IRS to not enforce the Johnson Amendment.
Presidents have discretion to give priority to the enforcement of certain laws above others. It is common for presidents to issue EOs like this one, directing an agency to enforce or not enforce certain legal provisions. Nonetheless, it is clear that this particular order is nothing more than a strategic political move. The IRS has not been harsh in enforcing the Johnson Amendment in the past, although it is not clear whether this is due to a lack of violation of the Amendment. It seems that President Trump is resuscitating this issue merely to become more popular with the religious right.
The EO also allows companies to refuse to provide contraception benefits on religious grounds.
Many have praised the Executive Order as a victory for “religious freedom.” But religious freedom is the liberty to express one’s religious beliefs. In a country erected on the principle of secularism, how can one blur religious freedom with political speech?