Trump Attacks Church-State Separation

At Prayer Breakfast, President Seeks Divine Help to Boost 'Celebrity Apprentice' Ratings

Posted by Dale Eisman on February 2, 2017


Today In Democracy

President Trump attended the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, observing an established tradition for the nation’s chief executive. But his remarks were anything but traditional.

The President began his off-the-cuff speech by requesting all present to pray for higher ratings for former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who replaced him as star of the “Celebrity Apprentice” reality television show.

“When I ran for president, I had to leave the show... And they hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take my place, and we know how that turned out,” Trump said. “The ratings went right down the tubes. It's been a total disaster…  And I want to just pray for Arnold, if we can, for those ratings, okay?

From there, the President got down to serious business with a promise to “totally destroy the “Johnson amendment,” a cornerstone of the legal wall between church and state in the U.S..

Passed in 1954 by a Republican Congress and signed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, also a Republican, the amendment is named for one of Eisenhower’s Democratic successors, Lyndon Johnson, who as a senator from Texas was its chief sponsor. It puts strict limits on participation by tax-exempt organizations, including churches, in political campaigns. Specifically, the amendment bars clergymen and women from endorsing or opposing candidates from the pulpit; violators risk losing their tax-exempt status.

“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," Trump asserted.  "I will do that, remember.”

 

Trump’s attack on the Johnson amendment is the latest in a series of disquieting signs about the President’s attitude on the separation of church and state. The Nation magazine and the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute have published portions of a four-page draft executive order circulating inside the administration that would effectively legalize discrimination under the guise of protecting religious freedom.

The Nation says the draft includes language that specifically protects the tax-exempt status of any organization that “believes, speaks, or acts (or declines to act) in accordance with the belief that marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman, sexual relations are properly reserved for such a marriage, male and female and their equivalents refer to an individual’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy, physiology, or genetics at or before birth, and that human life begins at conception and merits protection at all stages of life.”

If Trump issues the order, expect a tough fight in the courts and perhaps within the federal bureaucracy.  “This executive order would appear to require agencies to provide extensive exemptions from a staggering number of federal laws—without regard to whether such laws substantially burden religious exercise,” Marty Lederman, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and an expert on church-state separation and religious freedom, told the Nation.

Lederman suggested that portions of the order violate federal law or license individuals and private parties to violate federal law. The exemptions “would raise serious First Amendment questions, as well, because they would go far beyond what the Supreme Court has identified as the limits of permissive religious accommodations,” he said. “It would be “astonishing if the Office of Legal Counsel (which advises the President on behalf of the Justice Department) certifies the legality of this blunderbuss order.”

 

A report from the Los Angeles Times this morning provides a helpful reminder that being registered to vote in several states is not a crime and has nothing to do with voter fraud.

Multiple registrations are not uncommon in the U.S. but President Trump has cited them as evidence of widespread voter fraud.  “Sometimes a voter who has moved or has died ends up on more than one list until the jurisdiction receives notification of the change and can legally remove the voter from their list,” Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State, told the newspaper.

The National Voter Registration Act leaves purging voter rolls up to state officials. Voter fraud, a felony, occurs when a someone votes or attempts to vote several times in the same election or votes under a false name.

Real fraud is extremely rare, the Times report notes. The Brennan Center for Justice has published results of an exhaustive investigation that found just 31 credible cases of voter impersonation fraud among more than 1 billion votes case in federal elections from 2000 to 2014.

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Office: Common Cause National

Issues: More Democracy Reforms

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