On May 4, President Donald Trump signed an executive order entitled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” and liberals everywhere shivered with terror. According to opponents, the order was an endorsement of faith-based discrimination that would be the beginning of the end for separation of church and state.
The order called upon the Secretary of the Treasury to ensure “that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.” It told the Secretaries of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.” And it told the Attorney General to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.”
But the executive order doesn't actually hold weight as law, and the words themselves came across less as an order and more as a suggestion. The doom prophesied by progressives and LGBTQ activists failed to materialize, leading the majority of the media to downplay the whole thing as an empty gesture—which might be the most dangerous thing about it.
See: According to Trump and other conservatives, “religious freedom” is under attack from the government, a belief he stated clearly in June at the Faith and Freedom Coalition's annual gathering, where he told a group of evangelical Christians that they were “under siege.”
This rhetoric has been around for years amongst the religious Right, but it ramped up again last year when a number of conservative governors started pushing state bills under the banner of “religious freedom” that would allow business owners to refuse service to customers if it was on the grounds of religious conviction. Proponents of these bills pointed to real world examples of people being punished for following through with their religious beliefs, like the county clerk in Kentucky who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was briefly jailed for it, or the owner of a Colorado bakery who was found by an appellate court to be in violation of anti-discrimination laws when he refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Trump made it a discussion point along the campaign trail (along with some anti-abortion talk), and after half a year in the Oval Office, the Christian Right has been getting antsy about seeing some results. In this light, the knee-jerk reaction that the executive order was an “attack on women’s reproductive rights” or antigay is a bit disingenuous. The truth behind the order is probably less sinister and even more worrisome.
On Trump's part, the order can possibly be seen as a token to the far-right conservative Christians who got him into office—the return of a favor. On their part, the order isn't a strike against women or the LGBTQ community, it's a strike against acts that they sincerely believe are wrong. That's actually more terrifying, since it implies that a person's religious beliefs—no matter how contrary they are to popular opinion—should overrule agreed upon federal law.
What's weird about it is that the evangelical Christian groups who support these changes don't seem to realize that if they become law, they'll apply to all religious beliefs. They've apparently forgotten that there's more to America than just evangelicals and atheists. The shortsightedness of this track is frightening. Beyond arguments of whether or not the goals of President Trump and the religious Right are correct or ethical, by starting down this path of “religious liberty” and allowing religious convictions to override federal medical coverage laws, the way will be made clear for all sorts of future wackiness.
If Christian employers are given a pass to offering insurance that covers contraceptives, then will Scientologist employers be allowed to withhold coverage for psychiatric care? (Scientologists absolutely hate psychiatry. They even built a museum in Los Angeles called Psychiatry: An Industry of Death Museum.) Or will followers of Christian Science (a belief system that up until 2010 disavowed medical science as a sham and forbade members of the church to visit doctors, instead relying on the power of prayer) be allowed to not offer health insurance at all? Let's see … Snake handlers? Satanists?
While this choke hold on healthcare is bad enough on its own, an even scarier part of the order was the portions that dealt with “adverse action” against religious organizations for speaking about “moral or political issues from a religious perspective.” This might sound benevolent enough, but it refers to another campaign promise Trump made to evangelicals: to repeal the Johnson Amendment—a provision in the US tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing specific political candidates. These organizations range from churches and charities to universities. The idea behind the provision is to protect voters from being unduly influenced by spiritual or community leaders when they visit the polls. The law doesn't bar these organizations from taking political stances, just from endorsing candidates. I'm sure Trump imagines his name being preached from pulpits when he thinks of killing the damned thing.
But President Trump knows he can't just get rid of the Johnson Amendment, no matter what he told voters on the campaign trail. His hands are likewise tied when it comes to insurance coverage for birth control. So in this sense, the order doesn't officially do anything.
It does, however, tell the people who can do something to expect his support. Like Attorney General Jeff Sessions (reportedly a devout Christian), to whom the order is given to “issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.” Or Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price (who is staunchly anti-abortion and has voted against funding for Planned Parenthood), who is one of the people asked to “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate.”
Depending on how these people decide to go forward with the president's order, we could be opening a box that will prove troublesome to close. Already, the rippling effects can be seen. Late in May, the White House announced that the federal mandate requiring employers to provide health coverage for contraception was being rewritten. The Office of Management and Budget’s website lists the rule—the details of which are unknown—as an “interim final rule” that's pending regulatory review. It's almost a certainty that the new rule will be in line with the president's executive order, and if that happens, it will just be a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Ah, freedom.