WASHINGTON – Religious conservatives whose overwhelming support propelled Donald Trump to the White House are watching closely for him to deliver on promised protections for religious objectors to gay marriage and abortion.
On Thursday, Trump speaks at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile event bringing together faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries. He has not indicated how he'll act on the provisions sought by religious conservatives, which critics say could sanction discrimination against gays.
The annual breakfast offers an opportunity for a pause in the rhetoric of the day. It also provides a political spotlight, as it did in 2013 for Ben Carson, who drew national attention as a Republican presidential candidate for railing against the modern welfare state.
Earlier this week, the Trump administration announced that the president would leave intact a 2014 executive order that protects workers for federal contractors from anti-LGBTQ discrimination, saying in a statement that Trump "continues to be respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights, just as he was throughout the election."
Still, religious conservatives have high expectations that Trump will follow through on his promises through executive orders or other actions, said Kelly Shackelford, head of First Liberty Institute, a non-profit legal group that specializes in religious freedom cases. Shackelford said he couldn't think of any candidates "who have been more outspoken on their commitment to religious freedom" than Trump. He particularly noted Trump's pledge to repeal the Johnson Amendment, an IRS rule barring pastors from endorsing candidates from the pulpit.
Supporters of LGBTQ rights held similar expectations about Trump, and convened a call with reporters on Wednesday to express their anxiety.
"We think it is entirely possible there could be an executive order that creates religious exemptions," said James Esseks, LGBT project director for the American Civil Liberties Union. He added that the "narrative" that Trump won't harm the LGBTQ community was "not correct."
During a Monday news briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered no details on whether Trump could still issue an executive order affecting the LGBTQ community.
"There is a lot of executive orders, a lot of things that the president has talked about and will continue to fulfill, but we have nothing on that front now," Spicer said.
The White House press office did not respond Wednesday to a request for further comment.
For now, both sides are speculating on Trump's plans.
Gay rights supporters argue that he could sign an executive order that would allow religious organizations that receive federal money — like charities or hospitals — to make hiring and other decisions based on religion. They also said he could offer a more wide-ranging order.
Religious conservatives, who saw a series of defeats on same-sex marriage, abortion and other issues under former President Barack Obama, have been bolstered by Trump's win. In a letter last year to Roman Catholics, Trump pledged, "I will defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."
Trump's Supreme Court pick this week was also considered a positive sign.
A favorite of conservatives, Neil Gorsuch serves on the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he sided with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor when they mounted religious objections to the Obama administration's requirement that employers provide health insurance that includes contraceptives.