A bunch of atheists from Wisconsin are on the attack against Donald Trump — or at least, that’s what you’d believe if you’re listening to the theocrats who are actually on the attack against America.
There are almost as many problems with this characterization of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s lawsuit as there are with the executive order the lawsuit is addressing.
First, ‘atheists from Wisconsin’ is an inaccurate description of the Freedom From Religion Foundation — which is indeed headquartered in Wisconsin, but has members across the nation. This falsehood, sometimes coupled with the claim that the FFRF is just two people (granted it does have two co-presidents, Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, but they’re just the tip of the church-state separation iceberg — the FFRF represents every American who recognizes that there is no freedom of religion without freedom from religion) is typically used to pretend that lawsuits are coming from outsiders. This allows theocrats in other states to claim that the complainants aren’t even local and affected by whichever policy, law, or bad action the FFRF is standing up against this time. (It’s not true — the FFRF doesn’t step in until they receive a complaint from an affected individual.)
In this case, however, that falsehood doesn’t even have value as an argument, since this case is about America, of which Wisconsin happens to be a part. If this was literally two atheists in Wisconsin suing Trump, they’d have as much standing.
Then too, the FFRF isn’t attacking religious freedom or Donald Trump — they’re standing up against a regime that has promised to set one religion or group of religions as separate and above other religions or above nonreligion, in a nation that prides itself, at least nominally, on being equal for all, regardless of religion.
Franklin Graham, a North Carolina-based evangelist preacher who has worked to block religious expression by Muslims (WYFF4 says the use of a chapel bell to call Muslim students to prayer on a Duke University campus was withdrawn after Graham complained) posted on his Facebook page about the lawsuit Saturday.
Graham declared of the Freedom From Religion Foundation,
They don’t like it that churches and religious organizations would be able to more freely speak about political issues and elections. Christians should speak into public policy and influence the culture toward biblical principles.
In fact, while the right of Christian individuals to speak freely is recognized, and for pastors to discuss issues from their pulpits, there are indeed certain activities that are blocked for certain tax-exempt organizations.
One of these is endorsing a specific candidate. Trump’s executive order may override that law, or encourage religious organizations to defy it, and perhaps provide defense for that defiance.
Donald Trump’s so-called ‘religious freedom’ order isn’t a new law, doesn’t establish or protect free speech rights for churches, and is honestly so dodgy in language that it may have no legal effect at all, even if a court doesn’t throw it out.
It really boils down to three main points:
- The executive branch will protect religious freedom.
- The government will respect, as much as law allows, protect religious and political speech, and to the greatest extent the law allows, not take action against religious organizations or individuals for political or religious speech.
- Certain government departments will consider amending certain laws to further this goal.
The third may be alarming, but only when and if those further actions are taken. The first two points basically already amount to “Religious people and organizations will be granted the freedom the law already grants them.”
Unfortunately, Trump’s speech surrounding the executive order, the celebration by fundamentalist religious leadership, and certain hints of text in the order make it clear that the intent of the executive order goes beyond the text.
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.
That’s a long way of saying that tax-exempt status shouldn’t be denied for religious organizations dipping too deep into politics — in direct contrast to the ‘to the extent permitted by law’ line immediately before this. Here’s what the IRS says ‘the extent permitted by law’ is, in part, for these organizations:
…it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.
Here’s a portion of what the Freedom From Religion Foundation has to say about the self-contradictory executive order, and why they’re fighting it.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, contends that Trump is violating its equal protection rights and favoring church groups over secular groups, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Trump has directed the IRS to do something for which they both lack any enumerated or implied power: to selectively enforce a legitimate statute based solely on religion.
The FFRF statement, available in full here, goes on to note that while the order may not effectively amount to overturning the Johnson Amendment (the piece of legislation that protects against organizations capitalizing on tax-exempt status to campaign politically) it is designed to give the impression that religious groups are exempt from this legal obligation, especially combined with Trump’s repeated promises in that vein.
FFRF is asking the court to declare that Trump has violated the Establishment Clause and the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and acted in excess of presidential authority under Article II of the Constitution.
There are two more conclusions the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s public statement draws: 1) that the IRS must be directed to enforce the law equally for secular and religious organizations, and 2) that this, along with the ceremony surrounding it on May 4th, declared the ‘National Day of Prayer,’ demonstrates yet again why a government official declaring a day for prayer is a problem.
Donald Trump’s executive order is absolutely the subject of a lawsuit — but it’s not because some atheists don’t like the President. It’s because an organization that recognizes the line between church and state is standing up for all Americans by demanding that, if he’s going to occupy the role of United States President, Donald Trump must be required to recognize and respect that line too.
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Steph Bazzle reports on social issues and religion for Hill Reporter. She focuses on stories that speak to everyone's right to practice what they believe in and receive the support of their communities and government officials. You can reach her at Steph@HillReporter.com