Trump to Sign Executive Order to ‘Protect and Vigorously Promote Religious Liberty’ on National Day of Prayer

President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Michael Pence and his wife Karen Pence attends the National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, DC, USA, 21 January 2017.

Seeking to appeal to social conservatives who backed him in heavy numbers, President Trump will issue an executive order Thursday designed to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty” and “alleviate the burden” of a law designed to prohibit religious leaders from speaking out about politics, according to senior administration officials.

The order aims to make it easier for employers with religious objections not to include contraception coverage in workers’ health care plans, although it would be up to federal agencies to determine how that would happen.

It would also ease IRS enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which says tax-exempt religious organizations cannot participate in political activity. While only Congress can formally do away with the law, this will pave the way for churches and other religious leaders to speak about politics and endorse candidates without worrying about losing their tax-exempt status.

Although the White House released few details of the executive order, which is not as sweeping as a draft leaked earlier this year, civil liberties groups are already gearing up for a fight.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union and the Human Rights Campaign had said earlier in the day they plan to immediately file legal challenges against the order, if it is as broad as a draft that leaked earlier this year. Before details about the order were released, they expressed concerns that Trump’s actions would encourage employers to deny birth control services in their health plans, and could enable discrimination against gays and religious minorities.

“It would create an unprecedented license to discriminate with taxpayers’ funds, undermine women’s health care and elevate one narrow set of religious beliefs over all others,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, of the previous leaked draft.

Trump is expected to sign the executive order on Thursday, which is the National Day of Prayer. And religious conservatives appeared fired up for the signing. “There could be no better day to sign an executive order on religious freedom than the National Day of Prayer,” said Mat Staver who heads the Liberty Counsel, a legal group that has fought against same-sex marriage.

And Vice President Pence, who set off a national firestorm when he signed a religious freedom law as governor of Indiana in 2015, was scheduled to host members of the White House’s “Evangelical Advisory Board” at a White House dinner Wednesday.

Yet the opposition has begun: Gay and civil rights advocates protested in front of the White House Wednesday, saying the pending executive order is the latest Trump administration action that attacks the rights of immigrants, Muslims, women and members of the LGBTQ community.

And campaign-finance watchdog groups on Wednesday night denounced Trump’s move to ease the Treasury Department’s enforcement of the so-called Johnson amendment.

“President Trump seems to believe the law is whatever he says it is,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.

“He attacks judges and the courts for interpreting the law differently than what he pronounces the laws to be and now he appears to be trying to nullify laws by not having them enforced,” he said. “The Trump administration is rapidly becoming a lawless administration.”

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Brigitte Amiri said earlier in the day the group was “exploring all options,” including suing the government, in response to an easing of enforcement of the Johnson Amendment.

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Maureen Groppe and David Jackson