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Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Doesn’t Look So Bad, But Only Because Old Draft Was Far Worse

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In the days and weeks leading up to today’s executive order on “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” left-leaning Americans were a little nervous. Okay, that’s putting it mildly. They were freaking the hell out. As it turns out, however, it was for the wrong reason. Just this morning, Salon published a terrified piece with the headline “Trump’s ‘religious liberty’ executive order is meant to legalize anti-LGBT discrimination — and may be unconstitutional.” Yesterday, my colleague Elura Nanos wrote a column in anticipation of the order, excoriating the President for, among other things, potentially taking action that “could set back the clock on LGBT progress by decades.”

Of course, none of that ended up happening. The executive order, signed on Thursday, has nothing to do with LGBT issues. The order doesn’t mention LGBT people at all, not even in a veiled reference disguised as protecting religious freedom.

So were liberals making all of this up? Not at all. An early draft of the order leaked to The Nation started the fire that set the internet ablaze. That order made controversial religious freedom bills in states like Mississippi and Tennessee look downright harmless. While those bills aimed to allow people to refuse certain types of services to gay people if doing so went against their religious beliefs, the old version of the executive order reportedly extended the free pass to pretty much any person in seemingly any situation, “whether or not the act is required or compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” So basically, people would be able to claim religious freedom even if their religious beliefs weren’t actually in danger of compromise.

While a baker refusing to participate in a gay wedding or a therapist counseling a patient who wants to talk about their sexuality may result in legitimately difficult situations that the providers don’t want to be forced into, applying similar “freedoms” to “ any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations,” for “social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace” covers pretty much every aspect of life, and would essentially permit an entire society from shunning the LGBT community. And by saying that it doesn’t even have to be part of a system of religious beliefs, people could just refuse dealing with gay people for any reason they want, without even passing the blame to Jesus. Basically, everything liberals said past religious freedom laws were, this one actually was.

But none of that made it into the final order, so no harm, no foul, right?

Wrong.

Just because something isn’t horrible, doesn’t mean it’s good. While the order “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty” doesn’t discriminate against LGBT people, it does provide for a different controversial overreach, all in the name of freedom. A main purpose of the order is to take the claws out of the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 rule that restricts tax-exempt non-profits from supporting political candidates. President Trump’s order directs the Treasury Department not to enforce the law when it comes to religious organizations. While the President can’t repeal the Johnson Amendment with an executive order, if the IRS chooses not to enforce it, the effect is basically the same as long as Trump is in office.

So what’s the big deal? Removing the consequences of the Johnson Amendment would allow wealthy people to funnel political dollars through non-profits, and count it as a tax deductible donation.  As Brendan Fischer with the Campaign Legal Center explained, “Rolling back enforcement of limitations on partisan activity by religious institutions could offer wealthy donors a way to not only influence elections anonymously, but also get a charitable tax deduction for doing so.”

President Trump said in a speech Thursday morning that the Johnson Amendment is “a crippling financial punishment” against religious non-profits, but Fischer disagrees. “Religious leaders are already allowed to discuss political matters,” he said. “They are just not able to use tax-deductible resources to engage in partisan electoral activity.”

Also, the Johnson Amendment doesn’t target religious groups specifically. It effects all non-profits. Of course, even if it did only affect religious organizations, I would see no problem with that, since it would be a further separation of church and state. Ironically, the same First Amendment that provides Americans with that separation is being used as a reason to remove it. While President Trump isn’t saying that the government should control religion, he is endorsing the idea of religious groups gaining control of the government.

Funny that cable news networks don’t seem to be harping on this too much. Just a few hours since Trump signed the order, CNN and Fox News are focusing on the House vote on the American Health Care Act, which also took place on Thursday. Don’t get me wrong, I think they’re right to focus on that, which is why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both events took place on the same day. Additionally, the leaked early draft makes the final version far less shocking, and as a result, less newsworthy.

To borrow language from FBI Director John Comey, the difference between the actual order and the early draft is the difference between “really bad” and “catastrophic.” While President Trump’s new order is hardly a catastrophe, allowing the mingling of big donors, religious organizations, and politics is really bad.

[Image via CNN screengrab]

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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