President Donald Trump announced Thursday a new initiative that aims to give faith-based groups a stronger voice throughout the federal government and provide recommendations on administration policies.
The White House Faith and Opportunity Initiative will serve as a watchdog for government overreach on religious liberty issues, according to a White House statement. Trump signed the executive order during an event in the Rose Garden to mark the National Day of Prayer.
"Prayer has always been at the center of American life because America is a nation of religious believers," Trump said at the ceremony. "We are proud of our religious heritage and as president I will protect religious liberty."
In addition to making policy recommendations on administration policies affecting faith-based and community programs, the newly-formed office will also inform the administration of "any failures of the executive branch to comply with religious liberty protections under law."
The White House said it will appoint an adviser to lead the initiative and the office will be supported by various faith leaders from outside the federal government.
Trump said the order aims to ensure faith-based groups "have equal access to government funding and equal right to exercise their deeply held beliefs."
Last year, Trump marked the National Day of Prayer, an annual observance held on the first Thursday of May, by signing an executive order easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for religious organizations. The order directs the Treasury Department not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, which bars nonprofits from engaging in electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit.
Megachurch pastor Paula White, one of Trump's key evangelical advisers during the presidential campaign and in his administration, cheered the new initiative.
"I could not be more proud to stand with President Trump as he continues to stand shoulder to shoulder with communities of faith," she told Religious News Service, which first reported on the initiative. "This order is a historic action, strengthening the relationship between faith and government in the United States and the product will be countless, transformed lives."
Evangelical leaders continues to support Trump amid the Stormy Daniels allegations, with White among them.
Thursday's event comes hours after Trump acknowledged in a tweet he repaid his personal attorney, Michael Cohen, for hush money given to the porn actress after previously claiming he didn't know about the payments. The president continued to deny that he had affair with Daniels and said the money, paid just before the 2016 election, "had nothing to do with the campaign," Trump tweeted.
The Associated Press reported that as Trump was headed back to the Oval Office a reporter shouted, "Why are you changing your story on Stormy Daniels?" Someone in the crowd shouted, back, "Shame on you."
The National Day of Prayer event was attended by religious leaders including the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl; Southern Baptist pastors Jack Graham and Ronnie Floyd; Focus on the Family founder and radio host James Dobson; and author and speaker Eric Metaxas.
Members of the Texas church where 26 people were killed last year when a gunman opened fire on its congregation also joined Trump at the White House on Thursday.
Trump invited Pastor Frank Pomeroy of the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs and his wife Sherri Pomperoy, along with three shooting survivors for the event.
Pomperoy's 14-year-old daughter was killed in the November 2017 shooting. Both Frank and Sherri were out of town, in different states, the day of the shooting.