Trump announces faith-based effort on National Day of Prayer; Mormon women’s leader Jean Bingham prays at White House ceremony

(Susan Walsh | AP Photo) President Donald Trump, right, shakes hands with Narayanachar Digalakote, priest at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, Md., left, during a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 3, 2018. Jean B. Bingham, general president of the Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looks on from center.

Washington • President Donald Trump, in a Rose Garden ceremony, announced an executive order Thursday he said would expand government grants to and partnerships with faith-based groups.

A top faith adviser to Trump said the aim was a culture change producing fewer conversations about church-state barriers “without all of these arbitrary concerns as to what is appropriate.”

Trump has shrunk the infrastructure built by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the latter who created offices across most agencies with staff including dozens of people at the State Department.

Under Trump many of those staffs have been reduced and director positions left unfilled. However, he has expanded greatly the access to the White House of conservative Christians, evangelicals in particular, but also Catholics who feel alarmed by the growing legal tension between gay rights and conservative religious rights.

It was unclear if there were concrete changes that would come with the executive order, though Johnnie Moore, spokesman for the president’s evangelical advisory group — his only faith advisory group with regular access — said the initiative included an order to every department “to work on faith-based partnerships.” That, Moore said, “represents a widespread expansion of a program that has historically done very effective work and now can do even greater work.”

Moore mentioned an emphasis on faith-based partnerships focusing on prison reform, education, mental health and “strengthening families.” Faith-based groups have always been in such partnerships, but federal law requires that the government not show preference for one faith or put recipients in the position where they are essentially proselytized to receive care.

The ceremony was held on the National Day of Prayer and featured prayers from various faith leaders, including Jean B. Bingham, general president of the all-female Relief Society of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“This nation has been given relative peace and prosperity and we humbly ask thee to watch over those in harm’s way, protecting our freedoms in the pursuit of happiness,” Bingham pleaded. “Bless those who lead this great nation with the empathy, insights and inspiration they need as they counsel together and sincerely strive to work in harmony. Help us in our request that we may be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. May each exercise integrity, humility and nobility of character and his or her sphere of influence.”

Other prayers came from Cissie Graham Lynch, the granddaughter of the late evangelist Billy Graham; Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., and Levi Shemtov, the longtime Washington leader for the Chabad Lubavitch movement, and also the rabbi where Jared and Ivanka attend services in town.

The office — which has its roots with the Clinton White House in the 1990s — has always faced legal challenges, as various groups jockey for resources and others focus on guarding constitutional protections against government-backed religion. Trump is the first to present such a homogeneous group of advisers and goals described in such a sectarian manner.

At the ceremony Trump said he’s responsible for people saying “Merry Christmas” more, and talking more openly about prayer. “Don’t you notice a big difference between two or three years ago and now? Now it’s straight up.”

Melissa Rogers, who served as executive director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under Obama, said in a statement that protecting religious freedom should be a key aim of the government.

“At the event today, President Trump should retract and apologize for his call for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,’” she wrote in an email. “President Trump should also pledge to respect and vigorously protect the equal rights of Americans of all faiths and none, including the rights of American Muslims to religious freedom.”

Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who runs the policy-outreach arm for the Reform Movement, the largest segment of American Judaism, wrote in an email that he has “grave concerns” about the new order and its ability to let faith groups play a key role in government programs while also protecting “the rights all people, regardless of their faith. We have already seen efforts by this administration to undermine essential rules. . .thereby threatening religious liberty.”

The timing of the event comes as Trump continues to receive attention for a settlement his lawyer paid to Stormy Daniels, an actress in pornographic films who has said she had a sexual encounter with the president more than a decade ago.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who serves on Trump’s legal team, said Wednesday that Trump made a series of payments reimbursing his attorney for the settlement. Trump confirmed Thursday that lawyer Michael Cohen was reimbursed, but said that they payments were through a “private agreement” and did not come from campaign funds. Trump said last month that he didn’t know anything about payments to Daniels.

Faith-based offices were considered major announcements under the past three presidents. However, Trump’s expected announcement came as a surprise to many observers. It was absent from the White House daily schedule and some attendees said they were told only of the National Day of Prayer blessing and nothing of the executive order.

A similar version of the office was first created by President George W. Bush in 2001 with a mandate to partner with and serve as a resource to the faith community. The idea of the office was intended to put religious groups on equal footing with other nonprofit organizations when competing for federal funding, setting off a wave of criticism and questions about whether funding could breach a separation of church and state. Under the Bush administration, faith-based nonprofit organizations received federal grants totaling more than $10.6 billion.

Weeks into his presidency, Obama announced his version of the office at the National Prayer Breakfast, which kept Bush’s rules allowing faith-based groups to compete for grants and served as a liaison between religious leaders and the White House.

Since Trump took office, the director role of the faith-based office has been vacant, although some agencies have named faith-based-office appointees.

Among those attending the Rose Garden ceremony were: Southern Baptist Pastors Jack Graham and Ronnie Floyd; Focus on the Family founder and radio host James Dobson; and author and speaker Eric Metaxas.

Obama established about a dozen offices in various agencies and vastly expanded the number of staff members aiming for that same goal — connecting faith-based nonprofit organizations with the government in a fair way. Moore said for the agencies that don’t have a faith-based office — or a chief of that office — the same premise would be encouraged. He was, however, unable to give examples Wednesday of places where religious groups were unable to gain fair access.

A White House official told Religion News Service that those working on the initiative will inform the administration of “any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law.”

A year ago, Trump issued an executive order on religious freedom that drew mixed reactions among religious conservatives. Several of his evangelical advisers praised him at the time, but many in conservative religious freedom advocacy circles said that the actual text of the executive order did not change much. An executive order, critics argue, doesn’t last long because the next president can come in and rescind it.

Congressional attempts to chip away at the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofit organizations such as churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates, have been unsuccessful, though in the garden Thursday Trump implied he had “prevented” the amendment.

Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns who have been in a legal battle with the government over an Affordable Care Act mandate to provide employees with contraception, are still facing court battles. During a gathering last year in the Rose Garden, Trump told the nuns: “Your long ordeal will soon be over, OK?”

Moore said this new executive order is part of the White House’s broader efforts to promote religious freedom.

Earlier this year, the Department of Health and Human Services announced new regulations and a new division responsible for handling complaints from health-care workers who do not want to perform a medical procedure such as an abortion or assisted death because it violates their religious or moral beliefs. The new office was seen by many as a win for conservative religious groups while critics worry that the language in the regulations could lead to discrimination.

Salt Lake Tribune Washington bureau chief Thomas Burr contributed to this story.