Donald Trump Religious Liberty EO 01
Trump signs religious liberty executive order
01:47 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

It’s hard to imagine President Donald Trump, a very rich man, envying the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns who take oaths of chastity and poverty.

But the President joked Thursday during a White House ceremony that the sisters have something he deeply desires: smart attorneys.

“Do you mind if I use your lawyers?” Trump said with a grin, as a nun in a gray habit laughed. “I could use some good lawyers, too.”

The Little Sisters are represented by the Becket Fund, a nonprofit firm that focuses on religious liberty, who helped the nuns gain a key exemption from the Affordable Care Act.

That case – and religious freedom writ large – is what brought together the nuns, the President, and a few dozen religious leaders in the Rose Garden on Thursday. The stated purpose was Trump’s signing of an executive order, which he said would prevent the federal government from “bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs.”

Both liberals and conservative agree, however, that Trump’s order accomplishes less than advertised. Robert George, a Princeton University professor and leading expert on religious liberty, called the executive order “meaningless” and “a betrayal.”

Still, this President makes news in bunches, not bites, and Thursday was no exception.

In addition to signing the executive order, Trump announced he would travel later this month to the Vatican, setting up his first face-to-face meeting with Pope Francis. He also said he will visit Saudi Arabia, a source of extremist Islamic ideology, where the President said he would “begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation” to combat terrorism.

The trip will pose a series of diplomatic challenges for Trump, for whom the world of faith remains unfamiliar turf. Among the religious leaders in the Rose Garden on Thursday, Trump seemed to enjoy himself – he joked that he prefers their company to Congress – but it was a bit like watching a lost tourist stumble into the Sistine Chapel.

Trump referred to two of the country’s most powerful Catholics as “my cardinals.” He mused that he’d be “out enjoying my life” instead of helping evangelicals if he had lost the election. And he accused HUD Secretary Ben Carson of flouting a law that only applies to non-profit organizations, which Trump should have known is not possible, since it was the focus of the executive order he signed just a few minutes later.

Pulpit politics

For weeks, rumors had swirled that the Trump administration was considering a sweeping executive order that would grant religious believers, schools and corporations extensive exemptions to federal laws they disagree with, from LGBT protections to reproductive rights.

The 3-page executive order Trump signed on Thursday wasn’t that – not even close, leaving many conservative Christians looking like the boy who wanted a BB gun for Christmas and instead got a pair of socks.

The Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson, a proponent of strong legal protections for religious liberty, called the executive order “woefully inadequate.”

The ACLU, with whom social conservatives rarely agree, agreed, saying the executive order wasn’t even worth a lawsuit.

The order’s most controversial section directs the federal government not to take adverse action against any “individual, house or worship or other religious organization” that speaks about political issues from a moral perspective.

Why is that important? Since 1954, when Congress passed the Johnson Amendment, religious groups and other nonprofits have been prohibited from participating “directly or indirectly” in political campaigns at risk of losing their tax exemptions.

“Under this rule, if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax exempt status – a crippling financial punishment,” Trump said on Thursday. “Very, very unfair. But no longer.”

Trump had promised to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment after several of his key evangelical advisers, such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., told him it threatens their free speech.

In fact, the Johnson Amendment is rarely enforced. Since 2008, thousands of pastors have played chicken with the IRS