President Trump signed an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” on Thursday. The final version of the order addresses two issues. First, it instructs the Internal Revenue Service to “not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization” that endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit, which is currently outlawed by a provision typically referred to as the Johnson Amendment. “We are giving churches their voices back,” Trump said during a ceremony in the Rose Garden. Second, it instructs the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services to consider amending regulations in the Affordable Care Act that require most employers to cover contraception in employee insurance plans. A number of religious non-profit organizations have been litigating their objections to this requirement.
The order directs the government “to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” It’s a first step toward fulfilling Trump’s campaign promises to social conservatives, but the order is much less aggressive than many religious-liberty advocates had hoped. In February, a supposed draft of an executive order on religious issues was leaked to The Nation. That version—reportedly written by a staffer with the D.C. office of the First Liberty Institute, a Texas law firm that focuses on First Amendment issues—contained provisions designed to protect religious organizations and individuals who speak out against same-sex marriage, transgender identity, and pre-marital sex. It was a menu of sorts, a list of possible issues Trump could address from the Oval Office early in his tenure as president. While Trump has earned the support of a number of high-profile religious conservatives, others are deeply unhappy with the president’s first big move on what they see as religious-liberty issues.
The administration announced the new executive order on the National Day of Prayer, a tradition dating back to 1952. For months, liberal and conservative groups have speculated that an executive order on religious liberty was coming soon: These issues are top priorities for religious conservatives, especially the white evangelicals who played a major role in electing Trump to the White House.
Although the order didn’t happen within the first 100 days of the administration, as many religious conservatives called for, the administration rallied tacit support from some of the biggest political names in conservative evangelicalism on the eve of the its release. Trump hosted members of his religious advisory council at a small dinner at the White House on Wednesday night, including Franklin Graham, the pastor and son of the famous evangelist Billy Graham; Jack Graham, a Texas megachurch pastor; Paula White, the Florida church leader who spoke at Trump’s inauguration; and Ronnie Floyd, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.