(NCR Online) The Trump administration has issued a new executive order on religious freedom. The consensus of experts is that the order changes little or nothing. David Gibson, of Religion News Service, says it “seems unlikely to have much real impact on current laws and regulations.” Others suggest it is questionable constitutionally, and many conservatives see it as not going nearly far enough.
What does this executive order actually say? It seeks to “protect the freedom . . . to engage in religious and political speech.” Addressing contraception, the order suggests that appropriate offices “consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections.” Perhaps the most telling comment is at the end of the order where it is stated, “This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law.”
Therefore, I have to agree with Gibson that the executive order does little to change the current state of things from a legal perspective. Yet, I don’t think that means it has no effect.
A change in emphasis can make a major difference in what actually happens in practice. The order says to take “no adverse action against any individual, house of worship,” and that means “the imposition of any tax or tax penalty.” It is likely to make a difference in how strongly certain laws will or will not be enforced.
The Johnson Amendment appears to be at the center of this disagreement. In 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson supported an amendment to the tax code that insisted religious organizations not participate in political activity. The amendment stated that such organizations were “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” [More]