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U.S. President Donald Trump is seen on a screen as he delivers remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Retuers/Carlos Barria

Judgment day? Trump and religion at the 100-day mark

(RNS) This Saturday (April 29) marks the end of that artificial construct between politics and media known as the “first 100 days.” While both sides agree the period is essentially meaningless in terms of predicting the eventual success of a presidency, neither is willing to ignore it.

One thing that is clear so far: White evangelical Christians, who helped put President Trump in the White House and who will be affected by many of his policies, both promised and delivered, remain his staunchest allies.

Three-fourths of them approve of his actions to date, according to the Pew Research Center. That is nearly twice as high as the president’s approval rating among the general public, which hovers just below 40 percent.

So here’s a look at Trump’s accomplishments in his first 100 days in office as they relate to religion and people of faith. They range from matters of foreign policy to questions of who should pay for playground equipment. And more policies that affect religion are likely on the way.

The Johnson Amendment

Candidate Trump pledged to repeal a 1954 law that prohibits religious institutions from campaigning for political candidates. President Trump placed that promise front and center in one of his first official appearances.

“I will get rid of, totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear,” Trump told 3,500 faith leaders, politicians and global dignitaries at his first National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 2. “I will do that, remember.”

Conservative faith-based groups, including the Alliance Defending Freedom, cheered. Others wanted nothing to do with politics in the pulpit; about 100 faith-based organizations, including many Jewish and Baptist groups, sent a letter to Congress urging it to keep the amendment.

A repeal of the amendment may be included in the administration’s tax package. If it is, look for a fight.

Immigration and refugees

As a candidate, Trump called for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. As a newly minted president, he signed an executive order that temporarily suspended entry of refugees to the U.S., halted the entry of Syrian refugees entirely and restricted travel by residents of several predominantly Muslim countries.

The order also gave priority to refugees claiming religious persecution, which Trump promised in an interview with Christian media would reward “persecuted Christian” refugees.

Some faith-based religious liberty groups were ecstatic. Many have long held that Christians are among the most persecuted religious groups in the world — a claim many others dispute. Other religious groups that work with refugees were thrown into chaos. World Relief announced layoffs and the closing of several offices, as did Church World Service.

Judges blocked that first order — and a second one issued on March 6 — on the grounds, partly, that it discriminated on the basis of religion. The Trump administration is appealing the rulings.

Regardless of the legality of the travel ban orders, the administration’s clampdown on immigration is having the intended effect. Arrests by immigration agents this year are up by about a third, to 21,362 according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And border agents report apprehensions are way down.

“Last month was the lowest month for immigration illegally into our country in 17 years,” Attorney General Jeff Sessions said last week. “That is a remarkable thing to accomplish.”

Missteps with the Jewish community

In January, the new administration raised eyebrows when its official statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day (Jan. 27) failed to mention the Jews.

Then came further missteps: The president, under pressure to denounce anti-Semitism after several white supremacist groups and leaders endorsed him, did so only belatedly; press secretary Sean Spicer wrongly asserted Hitler never used chemical weapons in his “Holocaust centers”; Sebastian Gorka, a Trump adviser and close associate of Steve Bannon, came under scrutiny for his ties to anti-Semitic groups.

But this week, at an observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day held in the Capitol rotunda, Trump seemed to hit the reset button.

“Two out of every 3 Jews in Europe were murdered in the genocide,” Trump said in his remarks to Holocaust survivors and dignitaries. ” … Those who deny the Holocaust are an accomplice to this horrible evil. And we’ll never be silent — we just won’t — we will never, ever be silent in the face of evil again.”

Controversy over schools chief

When Trump picked Betsy DeVos as education secretary, many religious conservatives cheered. DeVos — a Michigan billionaire, businesswoman and Christian evangelical —is a proponent of school vouchers, which would send public money to private schools, including religious ones.

DeVos said of herself and her husband, “Our desire is to … confront the culture in which we all live today in ways which will continue to advance God’s kingdom, not to stay in our own safe territories,” meaning Christian schools.

When that 2001 statement before a conservative Christian audience surfaced in her confirmation hearings, many Christians took sides. Some alumni of Calvin College, where DeVos went to school, praised her choice; others signed a petition outlining their opposition.

But Trump’s proposed budget has cuts for multiple public school programs that mainly benefit lower-income students, while DeVos, who was confirmed, has focused on revamping — critics say re-scrambling — the government loan servicing for student loans.

Supreme Court pick

When Neil Gorsuch became an associate justice on April 17, he fulfilled the president’s promise to fill the Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia. Michael Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization, said Gorsuch would “affirm our most fundamental freedom — religious liberty.”

Farris’ prediction was tested in Gorsuch’s first week when justices heard oral arguments in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer. The case centers on whether the state may provide funds to a religious organization through a grant for playground equipment.

But its implications are vast — a ruling in favor of Trinity Lutheran could lead to government funding of religious schools through school voucher programs, which Trump favors.

Based on his lower court record, court-watchers predict Gorsuch will favor Trinity Lutheran. Adam Feldman, a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia Law School, told The New Republic Gorsuch has frequently taken a “loose approach” to church-state separation to find “ways that things don’t violate the Establishment Clause.”

During oral arguments, Gorsuch described the case as one of “discrimination on the basis of status of religion. We know that’s happened in this case, right?”

A decision is expected in late June.

Advancing abortion restrictions

One of Trump’s first actions as president was to reinstate the Reagan-era “Mexico City policy” prohibiting the use of American foreign aid by overseas health care providers that include abortion as a family planning option.

The move was seen as a reward to conservative religious groups. The Susan B. Anthony List made the reinstatement of the Mexico City policy, also referred to as the gag rule, one of its six “pro-life accomplishments made by the Trump Administration in the first 100 days.”

Also on the SBAL’s list are the “strong pro-life appointments to key positions” of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway and Gorsuch.

Meanwhile, the administration continues to signal its support of voters who oppose abortion. In January, Vice President Mike Pence addressed the March for Life in Washington, D.C., the highest administration official ever to appear at the annual anti-abortion event.

“Evangelicals are particularly important to Trump,” John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron in Ohio, said after the gag rule was signed. “On two issues – abortion and the Supreme Court – he made some pretty strong promises during the campaign, and at least so far he has kept them.”

Proposed religious liberty order

One of Trump’s main campaign promises — and one many religious leaders rallied around — was to “restore” religious liberty. Many pundits considered this a political “dog whistle” — a signal to Trump’s conservative Christian base that he would scale back Obama-era protections for LGBTQ Americans.

This week, 51 Republican lawmakers urged the president to sign an executive orderthat would do just that, according to USA Today. They want the president to roll back workplace protections for LGBTQ workers, eliminate the contraceptive mandate requiring religious organizations to provide birth control in their health insurance plans and repeal the Johnson Amendment, among other things.

More than 400 religious leaders sent the president a letter in early February asking him not to sign a similar executive order then in the works. The president did not, and this week, a White House official told USA Today that “some sort of policy to protect religious liberty is still in the works, but that the president is trying to find middle ground.”

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