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Civil Rights Groups Vow to Battle Trump's 'Religious Liberty' Order in Court

Trump's latest executive order intends to provide "regulatory relief" to companies that object to covering contraception for employees.
Image: Donald Trump holds a signed executive order
President Donald Trump holds a signed executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches on May 4, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington.Evan Vucci / AP

After President Donald Trump signed the Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty executive order on Thursday, civil rights groups announced plans to fight the order in court.

The order is intended to cripple the Johnson Amendment, which bans tax-exempt religious organizations from political activities, speech, and fundraising. It also gives "regulatory relief" to companies that object to covering contraception for employees.

For civil rights advocates, the most ominous aspect of the executive order is a section that directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to issue sweeping — but so far undefined — guidance to federal agencies "interpreting religious liberty protections in federal law."

Related: Trump Signs ‘Religious Liberty’ Executive Order Allowing for Broad Exemptions

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Center for Reproductive Rights sent out statements shortly after the order was signed, vowing to file lawsuits against the president.

"We intend to file suit today," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero in a statement released minutes after the order was made public. "President Trump’s efforts to promote religious freedom are thinly-veiled efforts to unleash his conservative religious base into the political arena while also using religion to discriminate."

Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, suggested the order's provision exempting religiously affiliated companies and other groups from covering preventative care is sex discrimination.

"President Trump's executive order discriminates against women and robs them of essential preventive care. Without health coverage of contraception under the ACA, countless women will lose their basic right to prevent pregnancy and plan when they have children," said Northrup, who vowed to "fight back in court."

In a phone call shortly after the text of the order was made public, Human Rights Campaign Legal Director Sarah Warbelow told NBC News she's concerned about Sessions being placed in charge of interpreting religious freedom in light of his anti-LGBT voting record as a senator.

"This is where there’s incredible room for injustice," said Warbelow, who noted that LGBT people are frequently subject to discrimination based on the argument of religious beliefs.

Warbelow said it's unclear how the religious liberty order will be implemented, but said she believed it was a response to stirrings among churches and religious groups that expressed fear over losing their tax-exempt status in relation to the Supreme Court's Obergefell ruling legalizing marriage for same-sex couples.

After the 2015 ruling, conservative news sites ran rampant with articles warning churches to prepare for IRS battles over marriage for same-sex couples. Warbelow said no churches have lost tax-exempt status in relation to same-sex marriage.

Related: DOJ Asks Court for More Time to Consider Religious Exemption to Obamacare Contraception Coverage

"It’s an attempt to solve an invented problem," said Warbelow. "There’s no evidence that this has been an issue in the past or will be in the future."

Other LGBT groups had been preparing all week to sue the executive branch over what they expected to be an explicitly anti-LGBT order similar to one that leaked in draft form in February. Though the White House denied that draft was ever being considered, reports of the discriminatory order resulted in outrage that was reignited this week after a Politico story revealed Thursday's plans for a religious liberty order.

Lambda Legal announced on Tuesday that it would sue Trump if an explicitly anti-LGBT order were signed. But on Thursday, the organization's CEO, Rachel Tiven, said the lawsuit was on hold — for now.

"We will be scrutinizing the moves that will be taken by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other administration officials in response to the Executive Order," Tiven told NBC News on Thursday. "If they take action based on this executive order that harms our community, we will sue."