Secular Legal Organization Claims Trump’s Informal Engagement With Evangelical Leaders Violates Federal Law

A prominent national secular legal organization is demanding that the Trump White House put an end to the president’s informal engagement with evangelical leaders on grounds that it violates federal law.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to senior White House officials last week, arguing that Trump’s continued engagement with evangelical pastors and televangelists violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

The act, passed in 1972, was designed to ensure that advice from federal advisory committees are objective and accessible to the public.

“It is clear that the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board is doing substantive work with the Trump Administration behind closed doors — without any sunlight for the public to understand how and why decisions are being made,” the letter, written by AU Associate Legal Director Alex Luchenitser, reads. “We respectfully request that the Advisory Board cease meeting and providing advice to the President unless and until it fully complies with FACA, and that you produce to us certain documents relating to the Advisory Board.”

The letter was sent just three days after the White House hosted about 100 evangelical leaders for a state-like dinner in which several leaders stood up and offered their praises of how the administration has quickly been able to progress a social conservative agenda and appoint conservative judges in the first year-and-a-half of the Trump presidency.

Although much has been reported on the dinner, what has received less news coverage are the several smaller gatherings of evangelical leaders for listening sessions with members of the White House staff since the early days of the administration.

Many of those who have visited the White House for these listening sessions have been evangelical leaders who were formally named to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign Evangelical Executive Advisory Committee. The committee ceased to exist in a formal fashion once Trump took over the White House. Since Trump took office, the number of evangelical leaders who have informally engaged with the administration far exceeds the 25 who were initially on the campaign committee.

Nonetheless, AU argues that the evangelical leaders have “provided formal advice and made recommendations to President Trump.”

“The Advisory Board ‘pays regular visits to the White House, which can start with policy briefings from West Wing staff and agency officials and end with impromptu visits to the Oval Office,'” the letter reads. “The Advisory Board has a ‘pretty significant’ hand in ‘directing or affecting’ administration policy.”

As many of the evangelical meetings with the Trump White House have been held in a relatively private and unannounced fashion, AU maintains that all meetings of presidential advisory councils must be open to the public and public notice must be published in the Federal Register. AU also stresses that records, transcripts and meetings of the minutes must be kept and made available.

Robert Tuttle, a research professor of law and religion at the George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C., disagreed with AU’s assertion that the evangelical leaders’ engagement with the Trump administration has violated law.

“I don’t think that Trump is using the [evangelical leaders] to collect information or to provide advice to the administration about religious liberty or anything like that,” Tuttle told The Christian Post. “Although the folks are getting preferential access and pretty grand treatment that you can compare to some other state visitors apparently, the group is not an advisory board in the same sense the religious groups that Bush and Obama organized were providing advice and counsel.”

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Samuel Smith