The first of what promises to be a spate of lawsuits was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western Region of Wisconsin today challenging an executive order signed earlier today by President Trump called, “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.”
The lawsuit was filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose attorney Andrew Seidel told The Hill that the repercussions of Trump’s latest action will be “infinitely worse” that the devastating effect on politics of the 2010 Citizen’s United ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allows corporations and thrid-parties to spend unlimited amounts on political campaigns and to support favorite issues.
“This will turn every church into a political action committee,” predicted Seidel. “They won’t have to file any paperwork with the IRS at all. It’ll be dark money into U.S. politics the likes of which have never been seen before.”
Seidel said Trump’s order violates the Constitution and U.S. law.
“The government is not allowed to favor one particular religion over another or favor religion over non-religion,” said Seidel. “That’s a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the Establishment Clause.”
The ACLU, however, which had also been expected to sue, said after Trump signed his order that they were holding off because, according to a Tweet, “Trump merely provided a faux sop to religious conservatives and kicked the can down the road on religious exemptions on reproductive care.”
However, the ACLU added in another tweet, if this order “triggers any official government action at all, we will see Trump in court, again.”
Today’s order is payback by Trump to religious organizations which supported him during the 2016 presidential campaign, especially the evangelical Christians, most of whom strongly oppose a woman’s right to reproductive choice (the right to have an abortion).
“Part of the deal that candidate Trump offered Religious Right leaders as that if they made him president, he would make conservative Christians more powerful by letting them turn their churches into political machines,” the group People For The American Way charged today in a blog post.
Many of the churches have chafed due to IRS rules that limit their ability to spend church money on political candidates and causes because it would violate terms of their exemption from paying federal income taxes.
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silence anymore,” Trump said at a White House ceremony celebrating National Prayer Day.
Trump is ordering the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, passed 63 years ago prohibiting religious organizations that enjoy tax-free state from participating in political campaigning or supporting a candidate for an elective office.
As a bonus, Trump’s order is also meant to allow religious organizations the right to deny employees coverage for birth control pills.
The reason the ACLU is hesitating is that the Johnson Amendment was passed as a law in 1954 after it was authored by then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, a Texas Democrat who later became President. To undo the Johnson Amendment, the Republicans would have to pass a new act of Congress, which Trump would then sign.
Dozens of religious leaders signed a petition and said today that they oppose Trump’s order, which many charge is really aimed at a specific group of his Christian supporters.
If Trump can make it stick, it could have a huge impact.
Rabbi David Saperstein, who was U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom under President Obama, testified today before a Congressional committee on just how dangerous a precedent the Trump order could set.
“We will see a massive diversion of campaign funding to houses of worship,” warned the Rabbi, “which will become slush funds for local, state and national campaigns. And since churches do not report who their donors are, funneling campaign donations through houses of worship would greatly reduce transparency in election campaigns, thus becoming conduits for dark money and undermining sensible campaign finance rules.”
Trump payoff to Evangelical Christians is the first volley in a battle that will now take on a life of its own and eventually end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. We have to hope that it gets there before Trump has a chance to pack the court with more conservative judges.