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Flanked by conservative religious leaders and Vice President Mike Pence, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty on Thursday. (Photo: AP)

Latest Trump Order Delivers 'Broadside to Separation of Church and State'

"It's clear that the Trump administration and Congressional leadership are using religion as a wedge to further divide the country and permit discrimination"

Deirdre Fulton

President Donald Trump's executive order on "religious liberty," signed at the White House on Thursday, may not be quite as bad as rights groups feared when they mounted an emergency protest in the nation's capitol on Wednesday.

But, even watered down from an initial draft, the order opens the door to more dark money in politics, throws women "under the bus," and boasts the support of ultra-conservatives already emboldened by the right-wing Trump administration. 

As such, it drew vows of legal action and condemnation from progressive advocacy groups across the spectrum—including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which denounced the order as "a broadside to our country's long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state" and threatened to "see Trump in court, again."

"Whether by executive order or through backroom deals, it's clear that the Trump administration and Congressional leadership are using religion as a wedge to further divide the country and permit discrimination," said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. "We intend to file suit today."

According to initial reports, the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty directs the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to exercise "maximum enforcement discretion" over the Johnson Amendment, which prevents churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. "We are giving our churches their voices back," Trump said to conservative leaders gathered at the White House for National Prayer Day.

The order "also provides 'regulatory relief' for organizations that object on religious grounds to a provision in Obamacare that mandates employers provide certain health services, including coverage for contraception," CNN reported.

While the full text of the order had not yet been released as of Thursday afternoon, Bloomberg reporter Jennifer Jacobs posted this White House handout on Wednesday evening:

Campaign finance watchdogs cried foul over the dismantling of the Johnson Amendment, which Public Citizen's Lisa Gilbert said "could open the door to even more secret money influencing elections—this time with an added tax deduction."

"The idea of taxpayers footing the bill to enable more dark money in our already broken political system is appalling," said Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for the group, which said the order "threatens another 'Citizens United moment' with elections subjected to a whole new tsunami of secret and unaccountable money."

Robert Weissman, Public Citizen's president, said Thursday that his organization was "quickly reviewing the terms of the executive order, which we believe is not legally valid, and plan promptly to sue to block its implementation."

Pro-democracy group Every Voice similarly argued that the order was "a clear handout to wealthy donors who will now have the opportunity to turn churches into vehicles for influencing our elections—all while keeping their donations anonymous and tax deductible."

The group pointed to a new white paper (pdf) from the Campaign Legal Center, which explains how "totally destroying" the Johnson Amendment (as Trump said he'd do on the campaign trail) "could lead to the creation of an array of new 501(c)(3) 'super dark money groups'—groups organized as charities or religious organizations that will operate as tax-deductible vehicles for wealthy donors to secretly influence elections."

Meanwhile, the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) said it was "considering all legal options to ensure women can get the basic healthcare they need"—and was ready to "fight back in court."

"President Trump's legal action executive order discriminates against women and robs them of essential preventative care," said CRR's president and CEO Nancy Northup. "Without health coverage of contraception under [the Affordable Care Act], countless women will lose their basic right to prevent pregnancy and plan when they have children."

NARAL declared that the order "directly attacks our bodily autonomy [and] personal freedom," rolling back what it called "the single greatest advancement in [reproductive] healthcare in a GENERATION."

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