Colorado pastors at Rose Garden signing of religious order elated, others less so

By Stephanie Earls and Joey Bunch, ColoradoPolitics.com Updated: May 5, 2017 at 10:55 am • Published: May 4, 2017 0

President Trump signed an executive order on religious liberty Thursday, the National Day of Prayer, which he said would make it easier for churches to participate in politics.

The long-awaited decree was seen as delivering on a campaign pledge to a community that overwhelmingly backed him in last year's election, and Trump said it removes the financial threat faced by tax-exempt churches from the Internal Revenue Service when pastors speak out on behalf of political candidates.

Those on both sides of the issue in Colorado expressed disappointment with the order, but two Colorado pastors who witnessed the signing in the Rose Garden were jubilant.

"There can be no victory without God," said the Rev. Christine Coleman of Denver-based Blazing Holy Fire Church, in a telephone interview with The Gazette. "Great things were made today."

Coleman called the signing "historic and fantastic."

The order, however, did little to decide the most contentious issues around religious liberty. It says nothing about religion as a basis for denying public accommodations or services for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer. It doesn't address hiring practices that exclude single parents, because of an employer's religious beliefs.

Under the order, religious organizations could theoretically get more involved in politics without risking their tax-exempt status, and the government might not be able to require health care plans to cover contraceptives, as President Obama mandated.

Trump's order, however, doesn't carry the weight of law, and the administration hasn't said how government agencies will carry out the president's directive under current laws.

While his order strikes at the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prevents tax-exempt churches from getting involved in politics, it does not repeal it.

Trump said he would direct the Internal Revenue Service to ease up on enforcing the amendment's rules in the name of political free speech.

"You're now in a position to say what you want to say ... No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors," Trump said.

Said Colorado's Coleman, "(Now)I don't have to worry what I speak in the pulpit. I can speak my heart and not have to be afraid that they will take me to court or take away my 501(c)3 (charity status)."

Coleman's charismatic revival church hosts twice-weekly prayer meetings at Every Home for Christ in Colorado Springs.

Fr. Andre "Abouna" Mahanna had a "beautiful chat" with Trump under the balcony at the back of the White House, said Mahanna, pastor of St. Rafka Maronite Catholic Church in Lakewood.

"I think the president succeeded and reasserted the foundational Judeo-Christian principles of our American way of life," he said. "... The rules of the president are assuring the nation we are one nation under God, people of prayer in America and people who choose not to pray."

Coleman is a native of Rwanda, and Mahanna said he had to hide in caves to avoid persecution and death for being a practicing Catholic in his birth country of Lebanon.

The Rev. Brady Boyd, senior pastor of New Life Church, said he's never felt constrained by the Johnson Amendment, even when delivering a message that touches on or is informed by the political arena. But such a topic is never at the core of his sermon, he said.

"We've always had mandate to put aside personal preferences to preach a greater truth," said Boyd, who said he had never endorsed a political candidate. "I feel like pastors have a sacred duty to preach the scriptures. We have a greater truth to proclaim than politics and I've always felt the freedom to do it. When people hear a sermon at New Life Church, they're going to hear a lot about Jesus and not a lot about politics."

He doesn't expect much of a change.

"There are pastors in our city who have endorsed candidates and would speak out on a particular political party and they've done that in spite of the law," he said. "I can honestly say in the 20-plus years of pastoring I've never stood in the pulpit and had one thought about the IRS."

The Family Policy Alliance, the public policy arm of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family, said the president could only do so much, and that Congress needs to get onboard.

"Part of religious freedom means not being forced to fund practices that directly conflict with one's sincerely held beliefs," said Paul Weber, the alliance's president and CEO. "This means taxpayer funded elective abortion, including abortifacient drugs, must end, including taxpayer funding of Planned Parenthood.

"This also means that the Trump Administration must ensure that employers and charities like Little Sisters of the Poor are no longer required to fund contraceptives and abortifacient drugs that conflict with their beliefs through employee healthcare plans."

The curbs on insured contraceptives struck a sour note with Democrats who have worked to advance issues around reproductive rights.

Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, a declared candidate for Congress next year, sponsored bipartisan legislation awaiting the governor's signature, to allow women to get a year's supply of a prescribed contraceptive with one visit to a pharmacy.

"Trump and the Republicans in Congress are waging all-out war on Coloradans, and especially Colorado women, with today's repeal of the (Affordable Care Act), and now this ridiculous executive order legalizing discrimination," she said. "The executive order allows corporations to discriminate against people based on their religion, sexual orientation or gender, and it dangerously jeopardizes access to contraception and other reproductive healthcare for all women in Colorado."

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