The separation of church and state is a crucial part of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Nonetheless, this intentional separation has always been a difficult concept to fully uphold, sparking many debates and landmark court cases, such as Engel v. Vitale (1962), which ruled official school prayer to be unconstitutional. This difficulty has resurfaced with the arrival of President Donald Trump.
Religious associations are explicitly discouraged from influencing public policy by the Johnson Amendment of 1954, which prohibits charities and churches from officially endorsing political candidates and electoral campaigns. A violation of the amendment would result in such groups losing their tax-exemption status.
On the National Day of Prayer on Thursday, May 4, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to make do on his campaign promise to repeal the Johnson Amendment. The executive order was speculated to have been a license to discriminate, with early drafts including a provision that allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT employees and single mothers in defense of their religious beliefs.The provision was removed when public response was unfavorable. The final version of the executive order aims to increase the political influence of religious groups, many of which had backed Trump’s campaign.
The religious community’s response was mixed. Some groups, such as the conservative Christian non-profit Alliance Defending Freedom, saw the order as “disappointingly vague.” Others, such as the Family Research Council, applauded the executive order as a step in the right direction. However, the loudest praises and calls for the repealing of the Johnson Amendment should be seen as the minority in the landscape of American religion. According to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2016, most religious groups weren’t actually seeking to have the amendment repealed. 71 percent of religious groups oppose allowing places of worship to endorse political candidates while maintaining tax-exemption status. In fact, 1300 faith leaders across the nation have contributed to an open letter to Trump opposing the order. Though Trump called for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, he essentially addressed a problem that wasn’t seen as one to begin with.
Trump’s executive order will not be able to change anything about the Johnson Amendment just yet—congressional support is needed to actually repeal the law. However, this executive order signifies a dangerous shift in rhetoric and direction. With the passage of this executive order, religious groups have now claimed a significant hold on influencing public policy.
While some religious groups seek to influence the political process in the name of religious freedom, this comes with the risk of infringing on the rights of others. Religious freedom is already protected by the First Amendment and federal law, and repealing the Johnson Amendment would not grant more religious freedom—after all, what does supporting political candidates do to improve your ability to worship freely? If religious freedom were truly the issue, why isn’t the Trump administration increasing religious freedom for other religious communities that face discrimination, as in the case with threats to Muslim mosques?
Though the separation of church and state will always be something that we have to redefine with each generation, this executive order is an irrelevant response to a principle meant to protect American freedoms.
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