First Amendment pros on both the left and the right are bracing themselves to find out what is in new, revised executive order on religious liberty that will be signed by President Donald Trump today, which is the National Day of Prayer.
So are reporters. So are millions of religious believers and unbelievers who care about First Amendment rights.
If you fit into one of those categories, then you are probably reading the advance reports on the rumors about this executive order.
Let me provide a piece of advice: Skip the report in USA Today. It is totally predictable and one-sided.
Instead, read the advance report in The New York Times and note, in particular, that the Times allowed its veteran religion-beat reporter to take part in the coverage. I wish the Times team had made one or two more telephone calls -- or followed some rather prophetic folks on Twitter -- to include the views of Trump critics who (a) are on the cultural right and (b) have solid credentials on religious liberty issues.
We will come back to the Times. Let's take a hard look at the USA Today piece. Here is the overture:
WASHINGTON -- Seeking to appeal to social conservatives who backed him in heavy numbers, President Trump will issue an executive order Thursday designed to "protect and vigorously promote religious liberty" and "alleviate the burden" of a law designed to prohibit religious leaders from speaking out about politics, according to senior administration officials.
The order aims to make it easier for employers with religious objections not to include contraception coverage in workers' health care plans, although it would be up to federal agencies to determine how that would happen.
It would also ease IRS enforcement of the so-called Johnson Amendment, which says tax-exempt religious organizations cannot participate in political activity. While only Congress can formally do away with the law, this will pave the way for churches and other religious leaders to speak about politics and endorse candidates without worrying about losing their tax-exempt status.
First of all, note the meaningless language that the Johnson Amendment says that "tax-exempt religious organizations cannot participate in political activity." That does little or nothing to help readers understand what is actually at stake.
The key issue here is whether religious organizations have the right to endorse specific candidates and aid their campaigns. Religious groups and other non-profits already have the right to speak out on a wide array of public issues that are connected to their theological beliefs and traditions.
It's crucial to know that many religious conservatives, as well as experts on the left, have ZERO interest in some newfangled right to endorse specific candidates or parties. If that reality is not included in whatever reports you read today, then look elsewhere. Yes, there are some religious leaders who oppose the Johnson Act. But there are many more who simply want to see it fairly enforced on both the left and right.
Can an executive order undercut an act of Congress? Not really and there are lots of Trump critics -- on the cultural right as well as left -- who think this is a diversionary tactic by this White House.
USA Today lets you know that people on the left are upset about this. That's totally appropriate. However, there are no critics from the right quoted. Oh, and there are close to zero voices quoted who defend Trump's action.
What kind of voices are missing? Well, like:
Or how about:
In general, the USA Today report simply rehashes lots of problems that your GetReligionistas have noted in earlier waves of coverage. Most of them fit under this umbrella: Does the First Amendment protect freedom of worship or the freedom of religious practice? Click here for a hint.
This keeps showing up in press reports as a confusion about whether mainstream religious groups -- think U.S. Catholic bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, Orthodox Jews, etc. -- want a broad right to discriminate against LGBTQ people or whether they want a very narrow right, as seen in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to attempt to defend narrowly defined acts of discrimination only in cases directly linked to centuries of specific religious doctrines (such as acts linked to same-sex marriage rites).
It's clear that the USA Today team knows that conservatives are concerned that Trump is, at this point, waving a white flag on RFRA issues.
Religious conservatives have long pushed Trump to renew what they say is an “appreciation for religious freedom” they say the Obama administration undermined despite a law created in 1993 to protect religious freedom.
“It’s simply bringing the federal government back in line with [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act],” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said last month about the need for an executive order.
Though conservatives may be hoping for that, a senior administration official said that Thursday's order is not about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, but did not say whether there would be another executive order addressing that law.
What about Vice President Mike Pence? USA Today notes, and read carefully:
The state religious freedom law Pence backed as Indiana’s governor sparked a backlash over whether it would allow florists, bakers and others to deny services to gays and lesbians. Those are not the services that would be affected by the executive order -- at least as initially drafted, civil liberties lawyers said.
Once again, we see the vague, undefined use of "deny services" language without noting the actual contents of the debates surrounding RFRA-type laws.
Thus, readers have no idea what is actually being debated here. It would appear that the cultural left has won, in this case. Ironically, that is a fact that (a) Trump supporters are not talking about and (b) that leaders on the secular and religious left are not anxious to mention, either.
This only magnifies the importance of journalists seeking out church-state legal experts on the conservative side of this issue, especially those who have been consistent critical of Trump actions on these issues. This is where you are going to find new, unique points of view on today's Rose Garden rites.
What about the New York Times piece?
The main point it gets right is noting the division on the cultural right between those who will cheer anything Trump does and those who have reluctantly supported him, in large part because of their support for the actual contents of RFRA laws. That looks like this in the overture:
WASHINGTON -- President Trump on Thursday will ease restrictions on political activity by churches and charities, White House officials said, but has backed away from a broader religious liberty order that would have allowed faith-based organizations and companies to avoid serving or hiring gay people.
Conservative religious leaders who were fierce supporters of Mr. Trump’s candidacy had pushed the president to provide faith organizations with much more sweeping relief from Obama-era regulations that protect gay men, lesbians and others from discrimination.
Instead, in an executive order, Mr. Trump will offer a vague promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.” He will also direct federal agencies to exempt some religious organizations from Affordable Care Act requirements that provide employees with health coverage for contraception.
By making those promises to mark the National Day of Prayer at the White House, Mr. Trump is offering a partial remedy to the anger inside some religious communities toward federal laws they believe require them to put aside beliefs about homosexuality, contraception or other issues.
The Times report is much stronger on the Johnson Amendment issue and even notes that evangelicals are divided on whether there is any need for this flashy action being taken by the Trump team. However, why make this an issue of evangelicals, alone? Why not mention other groups?
Note that the Times piece does make an important point here:
Churches and clerics are free to speak out on political and social issues — and many do — but the Johnson Amendment served to inhibit them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Later on there is this long and, at times, rather confusing passage about issues that were allegedly addressed in an earlier Trump EO that was shelved. Note the lack of attribution in any of this material. Does it represent the views of Trump critics on the religious and secular left, alone? Let's read this carefully:
A coalition of evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews has been eagerly awaiting a religious liberty order that would give them broad latitude to operate their religious organizations without government requirements to avoid discriminating against gay and lesbian people, or to cover contraception in insurance plans.
Note, once again, the lack of a reference to RFRA concepts for narrow, specific, limited acts of discrimination, as opposed to discrimination broadly defined. Reading on:
Many of those religious leaders had hoped for more from Mr. Trump after a draft of a religious liberty executive order surfaced in early February. That order would have allowed churches, religious colleges and some privately held corporations to stop providing contraceptives as part of the insurance they offer to employees if doing so offended their religious beliefs.
The draft order could also have allowed adoption agencies that do not believe in placing children with same-sex couples to avoid doing so; hospice providers to refuse visitation to the same-sex spouse of someone in their care; and housing programs that receive federal funds to refuse to accept a gay, lesbian or bisexual teenager into the program.
I know that the adoption issue has been crucial, in the past (click here for more information on that). However, the other examples -- while they may be accurate -- are not issues that I have seen discussed by defenders of RFRA concepts.
Again, it is crucial that reporters accurately report the views of critics on the religious and secular left. However, it is also crucial to accurately report the concerns and views on those on the right. In this case, let me note AGAIN, many of those voices on the right are critics of Trump who have years of experience in church-state legal battles.
Has Trump bailed out, when it comes to defending the (narrowly defined) freedom of religious practice on some of these tough cases? That's the question. Who are the experts who will speak most clearly and freely on that point?
Reporters: Please call some Trump critics on the cultural and religious right. The Trump fans will be celebrating, today. Look for the conservatives who are not celebrating, as well as the liberals who are quietly celebrating (but may not want to admit it).