An advocacy group that monitors issues related to the free exercise and government sponsorship of religion says President Donald Trump’s unofficial evangelical advisory board is against the law.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington-based religious liberty watchdog group founded in 1947, says the president’s hand-picked group of spiritual advisers violates a federal law that bars groups making public policy recommendations to the president from doing their work behind closed doors.
“President Trump has granted leaders of a narrow segment of one religion unprecedented influence on policy decisions that affect all of us.”
In a letter to government officials, Americans United says Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Board, a group of pastors and other church leaders recently treated to a White House state dinner, operates in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The legislation, passed by Congress in 1972, says Congress and the public “should be kept informed with respect to the number, purpose, membership, activities, and cost of advisory committees.”
The letter, dated Aug. 30, says the activities of evangelical leaders who pay regular visits to the White House that sometimes lead to impromptu meetings in the Oval Office are “well within” the scope of the law requiring advisory committees to open their proceedings and reports to the public.
“President Trump has granted leaders of a narrow segment of one religion unprecedented influence on policy decisions that affect all of us,” said Rachel Laser, president and CEO of Americans United. “Americans have a right to know that – and to have a government that works for everyone, not just some.”
Johnnie Moore — spokesman of the group established during the 2016 presidential campaign to advise the presumptive Republican nominee on issues important to evangelicals and people of faith — told the Washington Post there isn’t actually a faith advisory “board.”
“This is slang language that has carried over from the campaign into the administration,” said Moore, a communications consultant who once worked for the late Jerry Falwell at Liberty University. “There is no formal faith advisory board of any sort at the White House.”
Members of the clique include First Baptist Church of Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. Jeffress was one of the first evangelical leaders to publicly support then-candidate Donald Trump and is frequently called upon to defend the president’s character.
After emerging from Monday night’s White House dinner honoring evangelical leaders, Jeffress explained why so many Christians continue to support Trump despite allegations of extramarital affairs and hush money payments to former paramours.
“Well, it’s really not that hard to figure out when you realize he is the most pro-life, pro-religious liberty, pro-conservative judiciary in history and that includes either Bush or Ronald Reagan,” Jeffress said on Fox News. “I think that is why evangelicals remain committed to this president and they are not going to turn away from him soon.”
Former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham, a member of the evangelical advisory group, described Monday’s White House gathering as a “conversation” between the president and about 100 evangelical leaders invited to a dinner of Alaskan halibut accompanied by a wine list.
“It was basically like a state dinner in the way that it was organized with the president, vice president, members of the cabinet and so on,” Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, explained to the Christian Post. “It was the first time that anyone knows about … a sitting president of the United States that has gathered evangelicals at a state-type dinner.”
Members of the inner circle of Trump’s evangelical advisers have boasted about unprecedented access to the president in the past.
Southern Evangelical President Richard Land, who previously worked 25 years as head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in 2017 the Trump transition team was soliciting advice from evangelical leaders in ways that he had never seen.
“Some of my conservative friends and I, we have been pinching ourselves,” Land said. “Are we hallucinating, or is this actually happening?”
Land was among a group of ministers famously photographed laying hands on Trump in a circle of prayer in the Oval Office in July 2017. “He asked us to gather around him at his desk,” Land recalled at the time. “We visited with him for 10 or 12 minutes, and then we said, ‘Mr. President can we pray for you?’ And he said, ‘Yes of course.’”
A similar photo circulated in 2015 showed Jeffress and evangelist Paula White flanking then-candidate Trump in prayer during a 2 1/2-hour closed-door meeting on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York City.
Jeffress said at the time that Trump “is very aware” of concerns about what some conservative evangelicals view as a war being waged on their faith.
“He talked about religious liberty and the fact that the way to preserve religious liberty is by Supreme Court appointees,” Jeffress said. “All of these battles are being fought in the courts right now, and he wants justices who understand religious liberty.”
During Monday night’s White House dinner with evangelical leaders, President Trump welcomed the group as “really special people.”
“The support you’ve given me has been incredible,” he said. “But I really don’t feel guilty because I have given you a lot back, just about everything I promised. And as one of our great pastors just said, ‘Actually, you’ve given us much more, sir, than you promised.’ And I think that’s true, in many respects.”
The AU letter requests that the evangelical advisory board “cease meeting and providing advice to the president unless and until it fully complies” with federal law, including the release of certain documents.
The group sent Freedom of Information Act requests for paper and electronic records from or about “any member of the President’s Evangelical Advisory Board” during the last two years.