President Trump on Thursday followed through on a promise to grant religious organizations greater freedom in political speech. In doing so, he stated that he would mandate that the Internal Revenue Service relax enforcement of rules barring tax-exempt churches from participating in politics. Trump unveiled the Order in a somewhat formal setting in a Rose Garden ceremony—surrounded by religious leaders of various faiths, he spoke of the much-anticipated signing and its possible implications. The Order of Religious Freedom offers unspecified “regulatory relief” for religious objectors to the Obama administration mandate, already scaled back by the courts, which required contraception services as part of health plans, according to White House officials.
Choosing to unveil the order on a National Day of Prayer, Trump told those attending the event that “For too long the federal government has used the state as a weapon against people of faith.” He would later state, “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say. No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.” Vice President Mike Pence and a number of Cabinet secretaries also attended the event.
The order, unveiled on a National Day of Prayer, was noticeably more condensed than a February draft, which set off concern for alarmed civil gay right activists, libertarians, and other liberal advocacy groups who threatened lawsuits.
The earlier version of the February draft, included a controversial provision that allowed federal contractors to discriminate against single mothers or LGBT employees on the basis of faith.
On the campaign trail, and briefly after taking office, Trump vowed that he would “totally destroy” what’s known as the Johnson Amendment, a six-decade-old ban on churches and other tax-exempt organizations supporting political candidates.
Lyndon B. Johnson, introduced the amendment in the Senate in 1954, nine years before his presidency. Under current law, churches are free to promote political candidates but must forego such activity to obtain tax-exempt status. According to congressional aides, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment is being written and further developed into the tax legislation and in the House of Representatives.
The provision written in the tax code would require an act of Congress to fully repeal it. The provision also applies to all tax-exempt organizations, including some colleges and foundations. Taking a closer look at Trump’s order, it instructs the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion of the prohibition.” However, Trump’s directive may not extend beyond his presidency. It is without question, that broader legislation and the provision will face substantial pushback.
Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and other Democrats expressed concern that repealing the amendment would allow tax-exempt churches and other nonprofits to be used to circumvent campaign finance laws. In a letter Wednesday to Republican leaders of Congress, Sen. Wyden, stated that
“Using charitable causes as shell companies to evade campaign finance transparency and contribution limits would increase the flow of dark money in politics.”
In an effort to keep his campaign promises, Trump’s religious liberties order sought to appease a key part of his evangelical base. Taking a look at his exit polls in November showed then-candidate Trump defeating Democratic nominee Clinton 80 percent to 16 percent among white evangelical Christians.
Conservative Christian leaders have shown concern over the federal government retracting their tax-exempt status if showing any form of opposition toward gay rights and same-sex marriage. Some leaders of the ministry have endorsed the Johnson amendment, arguing that the amendment protects the church from intrusion of politics.
In a National Association of Evangelicals poll, taken in February, 89 percent of evangelical leaders polled stated that pastors should ‘not’ endorse politicians from the pulpit. The Johnson Amendment had not been a top priority for advocates of religious liberty, and did not seem to raise any concern, until Trump raised concern on the campaign trail. A number of faith-based groups have stated that they support the amendment. A requirement that churches stay out of politics, according to some faith-based groups, is key to separation of church and state.