An atheist group is suing President Donald Trump over his religious liberty executive order, which loosens restrictions on political activity by religious groups.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed suit Thursday in federal court against Trump and the Internal Revenue Service, claiming the order is unconstitutional because it makes government favor religion over nonreligion. Although the executive order applies to all nonprofits, FFRF believes it will be selectively enforced so as to only benefit churches and religious organizations.
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied, or silenced anymore,” Trump said while announcing the order on Thursday. “And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination, never ever.”
FFRF calls that and the order a “message to Christians, and particularly evangelicals” that the government will no longer bar them from endorsing candidates, donating to campaigns, or otherwise engaging in politics.
“President Trump’s EO creates the appearance of government endorsement of churches and religious organizations and a preference for these religious organizations above similarly situated nonreligious organizations,” the suit reads.
Andrew Seidel, staff attorney at the FFRF, told The Daily Beast the order’s language is vague enough to benefit religious organizations at the expense of non-religious groups. “It’s very poorly worded. Trump and the White House have made it very clear that they intend for this order to ease restrictions on churches, especially on Evangelical churches,” Seidel said.
Meanwhile, the lawsuit claims secular nonprofits will still be prohibited from endorsing candidates or otherwise participating in the upcoming 2018 elections if they want to keep their tax-exempt status. Those groups are classified as 501(c)(3).
“FFRF, for its part, would be seriously harmed by enforcement of the electioneering restrictions if it violated § 501(c)(3), including by loss of tax-exempt status, which harm to FFRF would be devastating and irreparable,” the suit reads.
FFRF cites Trump’s campaign pledge to overturn the Johnson Amendment, which his executive order “prohibits religious leaders from speaking about politics and candidates from the pulpit,” as evidence the government will favor religion over nonreligion.
When Trump announced Mike Pence as his vice presidential candidate in July, he once again spoke directly to Evangelicals.
“I said for the Evangelicals, that we’re going to do something that nobody’s even tried to do,” Trump said in July when he announced Mike Pence as his running mate. “We put into the platform, we’re going to get rid of the horrible Johnson Amendment. And we’re going to let Evangelicals—we’re going to let Christians and Jews and people of religion—talk without being afraid to talk.”
At the Values Voter Summit later, Trump said repealing the Johnson Amendment would boost Christianity and other religions “like a rocket ship.”
Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, told The Daily Beast he thinks Trump is going out of his way to repeal the Johnson Amendment so Evangelical conservatives help him on issues where they otherwise wouldn’t want to get involved.
“He pays attention to issues that are important to them, to Evangelicals, because he wants them to be helpful on issues that are important to him,” Perkins said.
But the IRS rarely enforces the Johnson Amendment. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit, has been endorsing “Pulpit Freedom Sundays” for years. In 2014, the FFRF sued the IRS over its lax Johnson Amendment enforcement.
“They didn’t even have an individual to do the investigations necessary,” Seidel said. The FFRF dismissed its suit against the IRS after they hired an investigator, but only one pastor has been audited for violating the Johnson Amendment since 2008.
“If Trump’s lawyers want to march into that courtroom and tell the world and President Trump that this order doesn’t do anything, we would consider that a win,” Seidel said. “But given his statements and the very clear message he communicated to churches, we don’t think that’s what’s going to happen.”