President Donald Trump‘s definition of religious freedom was rebuked Thursday by 8 Rhode Island faith leaders representing Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions. They stood on the steps of the First Baptist Church in America, founded by Roger Williams, who established Rhode Island as the first government, anywhere on earth, to protect the rights of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state.
Earlier in the day Trump signed an executive order designed to undo the Johnson Amendment and seriously damage the First Amendment and the wall separating church and state. To that extent, the executive order was a failure. Before the signing, the ACLU was gearing up to sue but once the text of the order was revealed, the ACLU found the executive order to be essentially meaningless. “Trump merely provided a faux sop to religious conservatives,” tweeted the ACLU, “The order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome.”
Still, Trump’s assertion that he would “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which disallows non-profits from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns, if they want to keep their tax-free status, was aimed at the founding principles of the United States, and it needed an answer.
Reverend Jamie Washam, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in America, noted that “Our spiritual forebears did not take kindly to living under theocrats who embraced religious liberty for themselves and yet denied it for others.”
“Freedom is always fragile,” said Washam, “It can be easily given up or given over. It is a relatively recent and bold assertion that people should be free to worship without coercion.
“Our First Amendment neither inculcates religion, nor inoculates against it. Americans can be loyal to the Constitution without being hostile to god. They can pay no heed to god without fear of a state sanctioned inquisition. We are only free, however, as long as all are able to inhabit an equal space of personal and associative liberty in which to worship, blaspheme or just prepare our meals.
“This freedom is for every one of us, and not just for those who believe in the same ways that we do. Baptists have never equated the voice of the majority with the voice of god, and we will stand for no such claims on this day.”
“I heard on the news that faith is deeply embedded into the history of this country,” said Dr Wendy Manchester Ibrahim speaking on behalf of RICMA (Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement). “Yes, that is true, but deeply embedded into the history of this country is also the separation of church and state.
“I also heard today that we will not allow people of faith to be bullied, targeted or silenced anymore, as a representative of the Rhode Island Council for Muslim Advancement, I say that we do support religious freedom. We do not support religious freedom at the expense of the civil liberties of anyone, we’ve got to leave room for plurality of people of all faiths and all genders.
“I invite my fellow citizens to dig deeper, into the rhetoric and the language and realize what supporting religious freedom is, and what supporting religious freedom is not.”
“Today’s executive order undermines First Amendment principles and protections that have always allowed religious life to flourish in the United States,” said Rabbi Sarah Mack, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island. “Our houses of worship are really one of the only places where people of different political beliefs can find unity and community that is so deeply needed by our nation today.”
The last speaker was the Reverend Dr. Don Anderson, the executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. “Let us be clear: the United States of America never was intended to be, has been, and is not today a Christian nation,” said Anderson, “Our founders intended that we would be a nation of many faith traditions, with no one tradition held in higher esteem than any other.
“The Johnson Amendment that was assaulted today by the President and his executive order in in place to reinforce that precious separation [of church and state]. Although some religious groups may hail this executive order, let us be clear: This order is outside the practice that has served us so well.
“We call on those people of faith who embrace this order to rethink the implications of what this means. We call on the President to rescind this un-American and un-Constitutional order. We call on our federal delegation and our state leaders to speak out against this travesty. We call on all Americans to make your concerns known and to demand a return t American values.”
The Reverend Chontell Nelson Washington, President of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, introduced the speakers. The Reverend Dr. Tom Wiles, Reverend Duane Clinker and Reverend Eugene Dyszlewski attended and stood in solidarity with the speakers.
The full text of the executive order reads:
PROMOTING FREE SPEECH AND RELIGIOUS LIBERTY
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, in order to guide the executive branch in formulating and implementing policies with implications for the religious liberty of persons and organizations in America, and to further compliance with the Constitution and with applicable statutes and Presidential Directives, it is hereby ordered as follows:
Section 1. Policy. It shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom. The Founders envisioned a Nation in which religious voices and views were integral to a vibrant public square, and in which religious people and institutions were free to practice their faith without fear of discrimination or retaliation by the Federal Government. For that reason, the United States Constitution enshrines and protects the fundamental right to religious liberty as Americans’ first freedom. Federal law protects the freedom of Americans and their organizations to exercise religion and participate fully in civic life without undue interference by the Federal Government. The executive branch will honor and enforce those protections.
Sec. 2. Respecting Religious and Political Speech. All executive departments and agencies (agencies) shall, to the greatest extent practicable and to the extent permitted by law, respect and protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech. In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury. As used in this section, the term “adverse action” means the imposition of any tax or tax penalty; the delay or denial of tax-exempt status; the disallowance of tax deductions for contributions made to entities exempted from taxation under section 501(c)(3) of title 26, United States Code; or any other action that makes unavailable or denies any tax deduction, exemption, credit, or benefit.
Sec. 3. Conscience Protections with Respect to Preventive-Care Mandate. The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate promulgated under section 300gg-13(a)(4) of title 42, United States Code.
Sec. 4. Religious Liberty Guidance. In order to guide all agencies in complying with relevant Federal law, the Attorney General shall, as appropriate, issue guidance interpreting religious liberty protections in Federal law.
Sec. 5. Severability. If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any individual or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its other provisions to any other individuals or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.
Sec. 6. General Provisions.
(a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or
(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.
(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.
(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.