WASHINGTON — Warning that religious freedom is “under threat,” President Donald Trump vowed Thursday to repeal the Johnson Amendment, an IRS rule barring pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said during remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile event bringing together faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries.
Trump made a similar pledge as a candidate but has not detailed how he plans to scrap the rule or how quickly he will proceed in doing do.
Religious conservatives whose overwhelming support propelled Trump to the White House have been watching closely for him to deliver on promised protections for religious objectors to gay marriage and abortion. Kelly Shackelford, head of First Liberty Institute, a non-profit legal group that specializes in religious freedom cases, said no other presidential candidate was “more outspoken on their commitment to religious freedom” than Trump.
The president made no mention at the prayer breakfast of other steps he may take on those issues, saying only that religious freedom is a “sacred right.” He used his remarks to thank the American people for their prayers in his opening days in office.
He also took a dig at Arnold Schwarzenegger, the new host of “The Apprentice,” the reality TV show Trump previously headlined. Trump said that since Schwarzenegger took over, the show’s rating have been down, and asked the audience to “pray for Arnold.”
While the president’s comments were likely to be warmly received by religious groups, LGBTQ groups are anxious that the president could use his executive powers to curb rights.
“We think it is entirely possible there could be an executive order that creates religious exemptions,” said James Esseks, LGBT project director for the American Civil Liberties Union. He added that the “narrative” that Trump won’t harm the LGBTQ community was “not correct.”
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that the president would leave intact a 2014 executive order that protects workers for federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ discrimination, saying in a statement that Trump “continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election.”
During a Monday news briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered no details on whether Trump could still issue an executive order affecting the LGBTQ community.
“There is a lot of executive orders, a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now,” Spicer said.
For now, both sides are speculating on Trump’s plans.
Gay rights supporters argue that he could sign an executive order that would allow religious organizations that receive federal money — like charities or hospitals — to make hiring and other decisions based on religion. They also said he could offer a more wide-ranging order.
Religious conservatives, who saw a series of defeats on same-sex marriage, abortion and other issues under former President Barack Obama, have been bolstered by Trump’s win. In a letter last year to Roman Catholics, Trump pledged, “I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions.”
Trump’s Supreme Court pick this week was also considered a positive sign.
A favorite of conservatives, Neil Gorsuch serves on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he sided with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor when they mounted religious objections to the Obama administration’s requirement that employers provide health insurance that includes contraceptives.