As Trump signs religious freedom order, photo ops criticized

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WASHINGTON (NEXSTAR) — President Donald Trump on Tuesday signed an executive order meant expand freedom of religion across the globe, but Democrats and a growing number of religious leaders say the action is being overshadowed by the president using religious symbols to advance his political agenda.

Trump on Monday had police clear out protesters in Lafayette Square outside the White House, creating a path for him to visit St. John’s Episcopal Church, where he held up a Bible for cameras. On Tuesday, he and first lady Melania Trump made a more peaceful pilgrimage to the Saint John Paul II National Shrine in D.C.

After visiting the shrine, the president signed his executive order to fund programs that foster religious liberty around the world.

“I think it sends very strong message,” Sam Brownback, the U.S. Department of State’s ambassador at large for international religious freedom, said of the executive order. “The reason it’s so important is because it’s a foundational human right and human rights have been declining.”

Brownback said the order will:

  • Budget at least $50 million annually for programs that advance international religious freedom;
  • Expand economic tools to support allies in advancing religious freedom and address “bad actors” by adding more programs, shifting foreign aid or issuing sanctions;
  • Pressure China to stop placing members of the Muslim minority in “reeducation” detention camps;
  • Mandate that more federal employees overseas undergo international religious freedom training.

“We need to put these sort of issues forward and I’m glad the president’s able to do that,” Brownback said.

But some Democrats and religious leaders are slamming the president, saying he’s using religious symbols as political props. The archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington said the president’s visit to the shrine “misused and manipulated” a sacred site.

“You’re trying to baptize your political decisions,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., also a pastor. “I pray before every single night but I would never, ever go out and hold up a Bible which might be interpreted to be political. I wouldn’t do it. You couldn’t pay me to do it.”

“It’s very unfortunate that people of faith would call into question what is anyone’s heart,” White House counselor Kellyanne Conway responded when questioned about the criticism.

The Trump administration says his executive action is proof his heart is in the right place.

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