NEW YORK — President Trump’s new executive order was the talk of the night at a gala Thursday for religious freedom advocates at the Pierre Hotel, located just blocks from Trump Tower. Sipping cocktails and eating crab cake and salmon hors d’oeuvres, guests appeared divided over whether Trump’s order should be viewed as a clear win or a steep disappointment.
Seated under dimmed chandeliers, many advocates said their expectations were high, since Trump has repeatedly promised he would champion Christians’ religious freedom. Instead, several people at a dinner hosted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said the text of the order doesn’t accomplish very much at all.
Earlier this week, many advocates believed that the order would contain language included in an early draft leaked in February. The early draft included grant exemptions for religious believers, schools and corporations to federal laws they disagree with, including LGBT and abortion rights laws. Instead, Trump said he would target the Johnson Amendment, a law that effectively bars politicking from the pulpit. The move was praised by several evangelical pastors who have been supportive of him, but Trump’s decision frustrated many people at the gala.
“It’s irrelevant, it’s offensive, it’s ignored by churches anyway,” said Robert P. George, a Princeton University professor who is well respected in this crowd. “He got enthusiasm in return for getting nothing.”
This annual event of more than 500 people draws some of the “who’s who” in religious freedom advocacy, especially Catholics and evangelicals but also some Muslims, Sikhs, Mormons and Jews. The Becket Fund was behind the high-profile Supreme Court case involving Hobby Lobby, which fought the Obama administration on an Obamacare mandate to cover contraceptives.
The firm has also defended Little Sisters of the Poor on the same contraception issue, and a Becket Fund lawyer who has worked on the case said she was pleased with Thursday’s order. During a reception Thursday at the Rose Garden, Trump told the nuns, “Your long ordeal will soon be over, okay?”
A spokeswoman for the nuns said they were nervous when it appeared last week that the Justice Department didn’t seem to be changing direction on the mandate yet, but she said they were pleased with Trump’s words and the executive order.
“We’re taking him at his word until we can’t,” spokeswoman Constance Veit said. “We have to be happy with every step forward.”
But others at the gala were not thrilled with the order. One of the guests, Ryan Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, was planning to attend the Rose Garden ceremony in which Trump signed the order, but he decided against it once he learned what the text would be.
“For the people in this room, the Johnson Amendment is not a priority,” he said. “We should say thank you, but [what the executive order does] should have been totally expected.”
Several religious freedom experts and observers said Thursday they don’t expect the executive order to change anything.
The Johnson Amendment is so rarely enforced that the language in the executive order about free speech is practically meaningless, said John Inazu, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
“For a stark contrast, think about the immediate consequences to real people of Trump’s immigration order,” Inazu said in an email. The provision that could affect the Little Sisters of the Poor instructs agencies to “consider issuing amended regulations,” something Trump didn’t need an executive order to do.
The executive order doesn’t hint that pastors should be allowed to endorse from the pulpit, said Douglas Laycock, a professor at University of Virginia Law and an expert on religious freedom. It suggests churches should not be found guilty of implied endorsements where secular organizations would not be, but Laycock says he doesn’t hear of stories where that has happened.
“But the IRS does jawbone churches in a way that it does not appear to jawbone secular nonprofits. Maybe that’s what it’s supposed to be about,” he wrote in an email. “The three agencies will likely do something for the Little Sisters, but no one knows what, and this order in itself does nothing.”
In his Rose Garden remarks, said Charles Haynes, a religious freedom expert at the Newseum, Trump appeared to misunderstand the current IRS regulations to mean that religious leaders are kept from speaking about political or public policy issues. Religious leaders can endorse candidates or parties, but they can’t do it from the pulpit or in the name of the church.
The executive order tells various Cabinet secretaries to come up with regulations protecting religious liberty consistent with current law but it doesn’t necessarily change the status quo, which Haynes described as “all talk and no action.”
“President Trump may think theatrics in the Rose Garden will satisfy his base, but somehow I doubt it,” Haynes said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which many might expect would oppose the executive order, said Thursday that it had no plans to file a lawsuit. The ACLU’s executive director, Anthony Romero, said in a statement that the order was “an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”
At Thursday’s gala, evangelical author and radio host Eric Metaxas, who endorsed Trump, threw up his hands and said he didn’t know what to think about the executive order. The order had pleased many evangelical pastors who had dinner with the president and key members of his staff on Wednesday night where he first announced his plans.
The order shows how Trump delivers on his campaign promises, said Franklin Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Samaritan’s Purse. Graham’s ministries were audited by the IRS four years ago after they took out ads urging people to support political candidates who believe marriage should be reserved for a man and a woman. Speaking by telephone Thursday, Graham said he won’t change the way he runs his ministries, but he sees that as “protection” from the IRS.
“We should not be muzzled for speaking out on political issues just because we’re people of faith,” he said. Like other religious conservatives, Graham said that while he would like to see more protections for business owners, he was pleased with Thursday’s outcome.
“Could more be done? Yes. I think we’ll take what we can take when we can get it,” Graham said. “Eighty percent is better than nothing.”
Graham called African American churches “smart” because “they just ignored that amendment all together. They’ve been having politicians in their pulpits for years,” he said. “White pastors should’ve just ignored it but they didn’t.”
According a 2016 survey the Pew Research Center, just 14 percent of Americans heard their clergy speak for or against a candidate last spring or summer, compared with 29 percent of black Protestants who had heard their clergy speak out directly about specific political candidates.
Eugene F. Rivers III, a black Pentecostal minister in Boston who was attending Thursday’s gala, said the Johnson Amendment has not been on the list of pastors’ concerns. Defending religious freedoms of the black church, which serves the poor in many communities across the country, should be a priority, said Rivers, who is director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies. Rivers said religious groups were treated like “useful idiots” during the Obama administration, but he wasn’t thrilled with this particular executive order either.
“While we understand the political motivation of our white evangelical brothers, there’s probably a more sophisticated approach to religious freedom,” Rivers said.
This piece has been updated.