Trump signs order to ease ban on political activity by churches

U.S. President Donald Trump signs an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., U.S., May 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order on religious liberties designed to ease a ban on political activity by churches and other tax-exempt institutions.

The order also mandates regulatory relief to religious employers that object to contraception, such as Little Sisters of the Poor.

It does not include provisions to allow government agencies and businesses to deny services to gay people in the name of religious freedom, as was feared by some civil liberties and gay rights groups.

The American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement it would file a lawsuit challenging Trump’s order.

Trump, addressing religious leaders in a signing ceremony at the White House, said: “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced any more”.

“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” he said.

Trump’s order directs the Internal Revenue Service to “alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment,” the White House said in reference to a 1954 law sponsored by Lyndon Johnson, then a Texas senator who later became president.

Under the tax code, organizations that enjoy tax-free status, such as churches, are prohibited from participating in a political campaign or supporting any one candidate for elective office.

This includes a ban on making financial contributions to campaigns and candidates, but the law does allow certain non-partisan political activity such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote drives.

Trump would need Congress to rescind the Johnson Amendment, but he can instruct his administration not to enforce it through executive order.

(Reporting by Ayesha Rascoe and Daniel Trotta; Editing by Susan Heavey and James Dalgleish)

Sixteen States Back Christian Universities in Appeal Against ACA

Three Christian Universities found themselves with unexpected supporters for their appeal to the Supreme Court over the contraception mandates in the Affordable Care Act (ACA):  16 state governments.  Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia announced their support for the school’s appeal.

Houston Baptist University (HBU), East Texas Baptist University (ETBU) and Westminster Theological Seminary have appealed to the Supreme Court over a lower court’s ruling they expand the contraception options in their health insurance plans.  The schools currently offer 10 different forms of contraception, but do not want to carry four forms of contraception that fall into the category of abortifacient drugs, or drugs that cause an abortion.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who is defending the school’s rights, says the support of 16 states through friend-of-the-court briefs is a major bonus to the school’s case.

“This strong show of support for HBU and ETBU (and Westminster Theological Seminary) demonstrates just how important it is that the Supreme Court address the impact of the HHS mandate, particularly on religious groups,” said Diana Verm, Legal Counsel at the Becket Fund, in a statement. “It is especially significant that the 16 state governments are supporting HBU and ETBU at the Supreme Court.

The 16 states claim in their briefs that the schools maintain “a sincere religious conviction that complying with the disputed mandate is forbidden.”  The Attorneys General for the states also endorsed providing the schools with the same exemptions that are given to churches.

A federal appeals court ruled against the Little Sisters of the Poor in a similar case last month.  If the exemptions are not given to the schools and organizations challenging the mandate, they could face millions of dollars in IRS fines for not making the abortifacient drugs available as part of their health care plans.

American Christianity Under Threat Say Star Spangled Speakers

A group of speakers at an event celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner says that American Christianity is under serious threat.

The event, held at First Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, featured speakers like former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and his father, Family Research Center head Tony Perkins and other leaders.  The event was to celebrate the importance of Christianity in the national anthem and the importance of Christianity in American history.

Senator Cruz said that religious liberty is endangered not just abroad but at home.

“If you’re litigating against nuns,” Cruz said, referring to the struggle of Little Sisters of the Poor against the Obama administration’s contraception mandate, “you’ve probably done something wrong.”

“Our land needs healing,” Cruz continued. “When this country was founded, it was founded on the radical concept that our rights don’t come from kings, queens or governments, but our rights come from Almighty God.”

Former Gov. Huckabee said that Christians shouldn’t just accept that our government is ungodly.

“Is it time for us to stop complaining about what is, and start believing what will be if God’s people on their faces in humility and brokenness will once again ask for His hand of providence to envelope this great land of ours,” he said.

Obama Administration To Continue Legal Action Against Nuns

The Obama administration has decided even in light of the Hobby Lobby ruling from the Supreme Court to continue their action to force nuns to pay for abortion causing drugs.

The administration filed a “supplemental brief for the government” Monday in the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in their lawsuit with the Little Sisters of the Poor.  The order sued to not be forced to pay for abortion causing drugs because it violates the Christian faith.

“This Court should proceed with oral argument in these cases,” the administration wrote in the brief.  “Because of the injunctions issued in these cases, the women employed by the plaintiffs have been and continue to be denied access to contraceptive coverage.”

The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, which is overseeing the case for the Little Sisters, told the Christian Post they were disappointed that the government is going to continue to target the nuns.

“We’re disappointed that the government still insists on picking religious winner and losers and exempting church while telling the Little Sisters of the Poor they’re not religious enough,” Adele Keim said.

Obama Administration Ordered To Revise Contraceptive Mandate

The Obama administration is working on a plan that will allow religious non-profit organizations that object to paying for abortion causing drugs and also signing forms to allow third-party groups to cover them to completely opt-out.

A White House spokesman said they are “developing the alternative” to the original plan that “won’t involve shifting the costs to employees.”

The Obama administration was ordered by the Supreme Court to revise the rules after a 6-3 vote by the Supreme Court that Wheaton College could not be required to cover abortion-causing drugs.  The case will have trickle down impact on other cases including one involving the Little Sisters of the Poor.

The court said the rule in the healthcare law violated the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

A source told the Associated Press the new rules will come out in about a month.

National Organization For Women Calls Nuns “Dirty”

The National Organization for Women, furious over the Hobby Lobby ruling and organizations that stand up against the Affordable Care Act’s mandate on abortion causing drugs, has released a list called the “Dirty 100” that includes a group of nuns.

The list, which consists of organizations that have filed lawsuits against the ACA, features the Little Sisters of the Poor as a “dirty” organization.

The Little Sisters of the Poor dedicates themselves to serving impoverished elderly people with “grace of hospitality toward the aged poor.”  The group operates 200 homes on five continents and serves over 13,000 residents.  The nuns who work in the order live communally and take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and hospitality.

The Little Sisters of the Poor were not the only groups that the National Organization for Women says are “dirty.”  The list included Priests for Life, a pro-life group that also advocates against the death penalty and 12 Catholic dioceses.

NOW, one of the largest pro-abortion groups in the country, wants to see a significantly expanded mandate for contraception imposed on all businesses than what is in the Affordable Care Act.

Hobby Lobby Ruling Not End For Contraception Challenges

While the Supreme Court ruling for Hobby Lobby was a major victory for Christian business owners, other lawsuits against the mandate continue to move forward dealing with other questions related to the mandate.

The Little Sisters of the Poor are continuing in their case against the Obama administration’s demand the Sisters sign an “accommodation” to the mandate that their employees can use to obtain contraceptive coverage.  The Sisters say that accommodation makes them complicit in something that goes against their faith, namely, abortion.

However, the ruling makes the lawyers for the Sisters believe the court will favorably view them.

“The court’s language indicates the accommodation’s days are numbered,” Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, told the Christian Post.

Blomberg says that he feels confident the court will carry the logic through to his case.

“When it comes to complicity, the government doesn’t get to decide, the religious believer gets to decide,” Blomberg said.