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Separation of church and state gets smaller with Trump's executive order targeting birth control

ACLU plans to file suit today.
Trump rose garden, trump religious liberties order
President Donald Trump signed an executive order promoting religious liberties Thursday. Photo: YouTube

In the name of religious liberty, President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday making it easier for employers to deny women birth control and for churches to have a louder voice in politics.

"We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore," Trump said from the Rose Garden on Thursday at a National Day of Prayer event held with religious leaders. "And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination. Never, ever.”

The order, entitled Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, stops short of including provisions allowing groups and businesses to deny services to gay people in the name of religious freedom.

It does, however, provide for broad “regulatory relief” to organizations that object to certain Obamacare mandates, including providing access to contraception, on the grounds of religious beliefs.

Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns that runs nursing homes, has long objected to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance cover contraception for women.

“Your long ordeal will soon be over,” he told them at the ceremony.

An earlier version of the order leaked to The Nation in February included protections for people to discriminate against LGBT people under religious freedom claims. The White House distanced itself from the leaked draft of the order in the ensuing backlash, instead moving forward with the scaled-back version signed Thursday.

Trump’s latest executive order promises to ease a ban on political activity by churches and religious groups without endangering their tax-exempt status.

Following a campaign season promising to “give churches their voices back,” the long-awaited order promises to dismantle the Johnson Amendment, which bans tax-exempt institutions like churches from engaging in political speech. Full repeal would require congressional action, but Trump achieves his promise by relaxing IRS enforcement of the rule via his order.

Enacted in 1954, the Johnson Amendment says tax-exempt groups can lose their status if they are found to have endorsed or actively opposed a political candidate. The IRS has been charged with keeping track of such claims.

Civil liberties groups have already announced intentions to fight Trump’s latest executive order in the courts.

“The actions taken today are a broadside to our country’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state. Whether by executive order or through backroom deals, it’s clear that the Trump administration and congressional leadership are using religion as a wedge to further divide the country and permit discrimination. We intend to file suit today,” American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement shortly after the order was released.

Pro-religion groups, on the other hand, are saying they don’t think the order goes far enough.

One conservative religious-rights organization, the Alliance Defending Freedom, called the order’s direction “vague” and said it did not provide adequate protections against future “hostile administrations.”

“President Trump’s executive order provides hope, on this National Day of Prayer, that he will move fully toward fulfilling his promise to protect religious freedom for countless Americans. Regrettably, this executive order leaves that promise as yet unfulfilled. As we have explained, though we appreciate the spirit of today’s gesture, vague instructions to federal agencies simply leaves them wiggle room to ignore that gesture, regardless of the spirit in which it was intended,” ADF CEO and President Michael Farris said in a statement.

Watch the signing ceremony below:

 
 
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