President Donald Trump displays an Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty on May 4. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Trump acts on politics in the pulpit with executive order


President Donald Trump’s executive order to weaken a prohibition against religious and other nonprofit organizations from endorsing political candidates has driven a wedge between Jewish religious leaders. Some cite it as a victory for First Amendment rights while others view it as a threat to the separation of church and state.

The prohibition is a 1954 provision to the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations from certain political activities.

On one side of Trump’s action are clergy, such as Rabbi Marvin Heir, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who argue that religious leaders should speak out on issues they support. Hier once was censured by the Federal Elections Commission for violating the prohibition.

“We should fully honor the separation of church and state, but that has nothing to do with giving a sermon,” said Hier, who led the prayer at the White House ceremony on May 4 when Trump signed the order and who spoke at the president’s inauguration. “When you’re a rabbi or a priest, and you feel strongly about an issue, you can name names! And you can say don’t vote for him! It wouldn’t be such an aveira,” he said, using the biblical Hebrew word for sin.

Other Jewish leaders and institutions, however, expressed dismay at the order, saying it sanctioned oppressive behavior and undermined the role of clergy as unifying figures. The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), a social justice advocacy group representing 900 Reform congregations across the United States, called the order “dangerously broad.”

Rabbi Joel Simonds, the RAC’s West Coast director of policy and associate rabbi at University Synagogue, said that while the pulpit should be used to rally against injustice, “justice isn’t partisan.”

“There are plenty of organizations and communities that can be partisan and that can speak out,” Simonds said. “But we have a unique place in our society and in our community to not dehumanize the other … and to preserve that safeguard [between church and state].”

The Johnson Amendment is named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas), who later became vice president and president. It forbids nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates, contributing to election campaigns or otherwise influencing legislation with public statements. Violating organizations may see their tax-exempt status revoked — although the Internal Revenue Service has seldom enforced the rule.

It does not prevent religious organizations from expressing views intended to support one side of an issue.

The president’s executive order, titled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” instructed the Treasury Department not to single out religious organizations for speaking “about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” when similar activity would not be considered a violation by a secular nonprofit.

The language used in the order was a relief for those concerned that Trump favored granting religious institutions even wider latitude. In February, he had vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy” the amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast. (Only Congress can fully repeal it.)

For those who had anticipated a more drastic measure, there still was plenty to dislike about the president’s action.

“I’m concerned about what drove this executive order,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder and senior rabbi of the synagogue IKAR. “I believe that if this administration were really concerned about religious freedom, that this would not be the step that one would see.”

Brous pointed to the rising tides of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia as issues of religious freedom that demanded action from the White House.

“There are actual vulnerable religious minorities in the country right now that need protection, and this executive order is a bit of a dance with the players who created the ‘War on Christmas’ in order to play to the [conservative] base, and to create the sense that we are getting the back of those religious figures,” she said.

The order also directs federal agencies to consider amending the mandatory inclusion of birth control in health insurance policies offered by private employers, a change widely sought by the religious right.

The Orthodox Union (OU), a national organization that supports the Orthodox Jewish community, applauded the order for giving people the right to incorporate personal religious views into workplace policy.

Nathan Diament, the group’s executive director for policy, said supporting religious freedom had been a White House priority until Barack Obama took office in 2009.

“[President Trump] is reasserting religious liberty as a primary consideration for how the executive branch implements law and policy,” Diament said. “We don’t have as Jews the same view [as Christian groups regarding contraceptive coverage]. But we do believe religious freedom needs to be protected — and the Obama administration could have but chose not to.”

Diament added that the OU supported the Johnson Amendment and likely would not have supported the executive order had its language been more aggressive. “We’re concerned about rabbis in synagogues being pressured into taking political stances that they may not want to take and may divide their community,” he said.

Hier pointed out that clergy making political statements is already a fact of life, an assertion that Brous agreed with. Moreover, Hier said, if someone came along who really was threatening — a candidate who was anti-Israel or a supporter of Louis Farrakhan, leadero of the Nation of Islam, were his examples — there would be an obligation to speak out.

When Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1984, Hier found himself in such a scenario. Jackson had referred to New York City as a “Hymietown,” using a derogatory term toward Jews.

“We condemned it and basically said that nobody should vote for him because it indicated to me the commitment to anti-Semitism,” Hier said.

Shortly thereafter, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a nonprofit organization, received a warning letter stating that it had breached the Johnson Amendment. That encounter informs Hier’s opinion of the law today.

Brous agreed with Hier that clergy should not shy away from bad political actors. But she disputed the need to oppose them at the pulpit. “There’s a candidate that’s been trafficking in racism and bigotry and misogyny of all forms, and I did not need to stand up ever and say vote for this person or vote for the other person.

“It’s enough to say, this is about democracy versus authoritarianism, this is about decency versus indecency, this is about moral right versus moral wrong, without having to hold people’s hands and pull the lever in the voting booth.”

Still, Hier conceded, if Congress repealed the amendment, he doubted that a rabbi would have much influence over his congregants: “People don’t adopt policies based on what the rabbi says. That we have to leave for the time of the Messiah.”

He said that he would not weigh in on future elections from his station. But for those who don’t want to hear about politics when they go to pray, Hier joked “they shouldn’t join a shul.”

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