- Sarah Posner
Investigative Fund reporter with The Nation Institute. Her most recent piece published in The Nation is titled “Leaked Draft of Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Reveals Sweeping Plans to Legalize Discrimination.” She is also the author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
Speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump vowed to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision that prohibits tax-exempt religious or charitable organizations from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” White evangelical Protestants have long pushed for the amendment to be repealed. Another move reportedly being considered by the Trump administration is a sweeping religious freedom executive order that would create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion and trans identity. For more, we speak with journalist Sarah Posner. Her most recent piece published in The Nation is titled “Leaked Draft of Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Reveals Sweeping Plans to Legalize Discrimination.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to take a closer look at two moves being considered by Donald Trump that place the administration squarely between the LGBT community and the religious right. Speaking at a National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday, Trump vowed to, quote, “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 provision that prohibits tax-exempt religious or charitable organizations from, quote, “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective [public] office.” White evangelical Protestants have long pushed for the amendment to be repealed. This is President Trump.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution. I will do that, remember.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The provision does not prohibit political activity by churches or religious organizations overall, but it does place some limits on the role of religious institutions in U.S. elections.
AMY GOODMAN: Another move reportedly being considered by President Trump is a sweeping religious freedom executive order that would create wholesale exemptions for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, trans identity. A draft of the order was leaked last week. Afterwards, several media outlets reported Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, who are considered supporters of LGBT rights, pressured Trump to kill the order.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Sarah Posner, an Investigative Fund reporter with The Nation Institute. Her most recent piece published in The Nation is headlined “Leaked Draft of Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Reveals Sweeping Plans to Legalize Discrimination.” She’s the author of the book God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Sarah. So talk about these two separate initiatives, executive orders, proposals.
SARAH POSNER: Well, the executive order, as you said, would provide sweeping religious exemptions so that anybody—a business owner, a government employee, an individual, somebody you work with—could claim a religious objection to you, to your sexual orientation, to your private sexual activity even, and refuse you service or refuse to rent an apartment to you or refuse to comply with a federal law that requires the employer to provide health insurance for a particular thing, like perhaps contraception. So, that is the main part of this draft executive order.
But it also has other provisions in it, including an effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Even if Trump doesn’t sign that executive order that I reported on last week, he still is, I think, fairly likely to join Republicans in Congress in repealing the Johnson Amendment. It’s not legally clear that he could do it via executive order, but the same week that all of this happened, members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus introduced legislation to repeal the Johnson Amendment. If that bill passes the House and the Senate, Trump is very likely to sign it.
And that would sweep away this restriction on tax-exempt—the use of tax-exempt resources to get involved in political campaigns. That would open the door not only for pastors to endorse political candidates openly and use their church resources to do so, but it would also open the floodgates of dark money, to funnel that money through churches, because it’s not transparent, it’s not reportable like money would be, donated to a political campaign or to a political action committee. If somebody wanted to pour unlimited money into a political campaign without having to disclose their identity, doing it through a church, who could now, with the repeal of the Johnson Amendment, engage in unlimited activity, that would be one way of somebody being able to do that.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sarah, through your reporting, were you able to determine who was—within the Trump administration, was pushing the executive order for him to pass or to sign? And also, this whole issue of his daughter and Jared Kushner having a different perspective on some of these issues?
SARAH POSNER: Well, you’ll note that the reporting on the Kushners’ intervention here was limited to one particular issue, and that was the question of whether Trump was going to keep in place executive orders from the Obama administration that prohibit the federal government and federal government contractors from discriminating in employment against LGBT people. When Trump issued his statement last week about that, that was the only piece of this entire issue that he focused on. And the reporting in the wake of my reporting on the broad executive order only indicated that the Kushners had prevailed upon him regarding that particular employment issue. That reporting does not indicate at all whether the Kushners prevailed on him about these exceedingly broad religious exemptions, nor does it address the question of what they think about the Johnson Amendment.
I was not able to discover who within the administration is pushing for this, but after I reported that, the existence of that executive order, there were many figures on the religious right who expressed support for it in its entirety and urged President O—sorry, President Trump to sign it. Ryan Anderson at the Heritage Foundation, who—which is a conservative think tank, he is an outspoken opponent of marriage equality. He tweeted and then subsequently wrote a column about how the executive order was lawful and right and that President Trump should sign it. Other figures on the religious right also chimed in along those lines. Bryan Fischer, a talk radio host, tweeted that if President Trump signed it, he would be the Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King of religious freedom.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, why did, at the time, Senator Lyndon Johnson do the amendment? We just have 10 seconds.
SARAH POSNER: Right. Well—
AMY GOODMAN: Why did he push the Johnson Amendment?
SARAH POSNER: Because, basically, taxpayers subsidize tax-exempt organizations, because the—you can get a tax exemption for donating; they don’t have to pay taxes on it. So, it’s an issue of taxpayers subsidizing political activity.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Posner, we thank you for being with us.
SARAH POSNER: Thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll link to your piece in The Nation magazine, which—in which you describe this issue.
Today, special thanks to Andre Lewis and Ariel Boone.