President Donald Trump signed an expansion of religious rights Thursday, a move that has the potential to reshape the role of religion in American public life but disappointed some conservative allies who had expected more-far-reaching measures.
In an executive order announced in a Rose Garden ceremony Thursday morning, Mr. Trump rolled back restrictions on political activity by houses of worship, declaring "it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty."
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The order also instructed agencies to consider waiving for religiously affiliated employers a requirement that their health insurance plans include coverage for contraception.
"For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith, bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs," Mr. Trump said. "No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith."
The order was one of the most coveted prizes for conservative Christians, whose overwhelming support for Mr. Trump helped launch him into the White House.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins also praised the move as a "significant first step."
Still, it was less expansive than a draft order leaked in February, and the American Civil Liberties Union, which had threatened a lawsuit before its details were released, backed down by the end of the day.
"Today's executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order's text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process," said ACLU director Anthony D. Romero.
Ryan Anderson, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, wrote that Mr. Trump had "failed to stand up for commonsense policy on religious liberty when liberal opponents lashed out against it."
Attorney General Jeff Sessions will now begin the process of setting new guidelines for how federal agencies must accommodate religious beliefs, the president said Thursday. By turning to Mr. Sessions, the president is effectively delaying making some controversial decisions.
Among the areas of contention not immediately addressed: whether religiously affiliated health-care providers and social-services agencies must allow adoptions by same-sex couples, provide access to abortion or allow transgender people to use facilities for the gender with which they identify, rather than the one assigned to them at birth.
Attendees of the Rose Garden ceremony said the executive order was a step forward, and a sign of the president's commitment to their core issues.
The order effectively instructed the Internal Revenue Service to stop enforcing the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old section of the federal tax code named after former President Lyndon B. Johnson that bans tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing political candidates, though it is rarely enforced.
"I'm very encouraged -- the president is moving in the right direction," said Jerry A. Johnson, president of the National Religious Broadcasters, who attended the signing and is also a Southern Baptist pastor. "It is a fact that pastors were intimidated not to speak on political themes during election time because of the I.R.S. threat."
Rep. Kevin Brady (R., Texas), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Thursday said he hoped to make permanent legal changes to the amendment, which Mr. Trump cannot do alone.
"I intend in the tax reform bill to eliminate the damaging impacts of the Johnson Amendment so that our religious leaders back home can speak freely and practice their faith without the fear of the IRS targeting them," Mr. Brady said.
The contraception provision of the order also won endorsements from some plaintiffs who had challenged it in court, the Little Sisters of the Poor. The order of nuns runs a chain of nursing homes, and some members attended the Rose Garden ceremony and stood behind the president as he signed the order.
But among conservative Christians, there was a split between those who hailed the order as the most important step forward for religious liberty in decades, and those frustrated that the executive order did not go further.
Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal organization, said he was "disappointed."
There appeared to be no additional exemptions for religious groups that do federal contracting work and didn't want to hire gay or transgender employees, he said, or for religious adoption agencies, which have clashed with states over whether they have to place children with gay couples.
"Prior versions of what the executive order might say were certainly more robust, and dealt with the burgeoning problem of the government bullying and punishing people because of their view on marriage and sexuality," Mr. Baylor said. "We don't really see anything concrete that addresses that problem in this order."
The White House still faces pushback on the order from liberal groups, which began fundraising drives as soon as news reports of it broke.
Gay rights leaders, who had protested against the order even before it was signed, said they expected it would ultimately lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians.
"This is clearly Trump punting the question of the scope and nature of religious exemptions for a couple weeks or even months," said Sarah Warbelow, a lawyer for Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group.
"A concern is that the president has washed his hands of this, while ensuring that many pieces that were in the leaked executive order potentially come to fruition," she said.
--Richard Rubin contributed to this article.
Write to Louise Radnofsky at firstname.lastname@example.org and Ian Lovett at Ian.Lovett@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 04, 2017 21:39 ET (01:39 GMT)