More than the 150 members of the secretive right-wing network known as the Council for National Policy have signed a letter calling on President Trump to sign an executive order “protecting the practical exercise of religious freedom,” something Religious Right leaders have been clamoring for since Trump took office. On Wednesday, Fox News pundit and serial promoter of bogus religious persecution stories Todd Starnes outed himself as a member of the CNP in writing about the letter.
The Council for National Policy is a network of leaders from the religious and political right, whose membership includes both big names and lesser-known fringe figures. A 2014 membership list obtained by the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that the CNP even has room for extremists like neo-confederate Christian Reconstructionist Michael Peroutka. According to Starnes, who says Trump’s election was the result of divine intervention, other signers include “CNP President Tony Perkins, former Attorney General Edwin Meese, Morton Blackwell, Bob McEwen, Kelly Shackelford, Becky Norton Dunlop, Chad Connelly, Dr. James Dobson and Penny Nance.”
A month ago, Sarah Posner reported in The Nation on a leaked draft of the executive order, which legal experts said was of “sweeping” and “staggering” scope. If signed it would create wholesale exemptions from a range of nondiscrimination laws and regulations “for people and organizations who claim religious objections to same-sex marriage, premarital sex, abortion, and trans identity.” The order could empower government employees to refuse to provide basic government services to gay people or couples or unmarried parents.
Posner’s article quotes a Lambda Legal attorney who says the draft order is similar to a law signed by the Mississippi governor last year, “which a federal district court ruled violated both the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause.” That case is on appeal.
The desire to get federal courts to embrace the right’s vision of religious liberty was one of the major reasons Religious Right leaders rallied around Trump after he promised them the Supreme Court of their dreams. In that regard, it is noteworthy that Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch ruled as an appeals court judge in the Hobby Lobby case, which for the first time gave for-profit corporations the right to claim exemption from laws protecting their employees based on the religious beliefs of the company and its owners. That’s a major reason that the Religious Right is thrilled about the Gorsuch nomination.