President Donald Trump announced on Thursday his plan to protect religious freedom. In a Rose Garden ceremony marking the National Day of Prayer. President Trump signed an  executive that establishes the White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative. The president said that the office will seek to protect religious freedom while ensuring that "the faith-based and community organizations that form the bedrock of our society have strong advocates in the White House and throughout the federal government."

"Prayer has always been at the center of the American life. America is a nation of believers, and together we are strengthened by the power of prayer," the president said. Besides issuing recommendations to the administration, the new office will inform the White House of "any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law."

The initiative will be led by a newly appointed White House adviser to the group and will be supported by various faith leaders from outside the federal government. The order also aims to ensure faith based organizations have "equal access to government funding and equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs."

"We take this step because we know that in solving the many many problems and our great challenges, faith is more powerful than government and nothing is more powerful than God," the president said. In a proclamation released before the event, the president declared, "we join together to offer gratitude for our many blessings and to acknowledge our need for divine wisdom, guidance, and protection." The order provided regulatory relief from Obamacare requirements such as the requirement that organizations provide contraception care, which was heavily debated in the Little Sisters of the Poor case. 

On the observance of the National Day of Prayer in 2017, the president signed a similar "religious liberty" executive order that would allow the IRS to opt not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and charities from "directly or indirectly" engaging in political campaigns. 

Evangelist Franklin Graham praised the executive order, "I'm extremely grateful that we have a president who realizes the importance of prayer, faith, and religious freedoms to our nation."

The new executive order calls on the executive branch to ensure "conscience protections," with the broader goal of preserving "the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America." 

Here's what it says:

"It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government."

Later the order specifically directs the Treasury Department, which includes the IRS, not to target churches or religious groups for speaking out about political issues:

"In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, 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, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury."

Here follows the executive order in its entirety:

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to guide the executive branch in formulating and implementing policies with implications for the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America, and to further compliance with the Constitution and with applicable statutes and Presidential Directives, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Policy.  It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.  The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government.  For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom.  Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government.  The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.

Sec. 2.  Respecting Religious and Political Speech.  All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.  In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, 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, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury.  As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.

Sec. 3.  Conscience Protections with Respect to Preventive-Care Mandate.  The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.

Sec. 4.  Religious Liberty Guidance.  In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.

Sec. 5.  Severability.  If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any individual or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its other provisions to any other individuals or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.

Sec. 6.  General Provisions.  (a)  Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:

(i)   the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or

(ii)  the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.

(b)  This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.

(c)  This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

DONALD J. TRUMP

THE WHITE HOUSE,
May 4, 2017.

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Spero News editor Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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