Outside group readies lawsuit on Trump's religious exemption order

Outside group readies lawsuit on Trump's religious exemption order
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At least one group is gearing up to file legal challenges against President Trump's executive order intended to make it easier for religious groups to participate in politics without risking their tax-exempt status, though another has said it isn't worth the trouble.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) said Thursday it had a 17-page complaint ready to be filed in the federal District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. The group’s attorney, Andrew Seidel, said he’s just waiting to see the exact language of the order.

The order, which Trump signed Thursday morning, is reportedly designed to ease enforcement of a provision in the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment, which bars religious institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates and parties. Doing so, Seidel said violates the Constitution.

“The government is not allowed to favor one particular religion over another or favor religion over non-religion,” Seidel said. “That’s a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and the Establishment Clause.” 

Seidel said the repercussions of the order will be “infinitely worse” than Citizens United v. FEC, the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in which struck down limits on third-party spending on campaigns and candidates.

“This will turn every church into a political action committee,” he said. “They won’t have to file any paperwork with the IRS at all. It’ll be dark money into U.S. politics the likes of which have never been seen before.”

The FFRF sued the IRS in 2014 over its lack of enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. The group ultimately agreed to dismiss the case without prejudice, after the agency agreed to hire someone to enforce the law.

But Seidel said Thursday the FFRF is ready to reinstate its lawsuit.

“We would be the injured party,” he said. “The way it appears to be written, churches and religious groups don’t have to follow the rule and secular groups do. We are harmed by not being able to participate in political speech on the same playing field and risk losing our tax exempt status if we do.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said before the order's full text was released that it was also ready to go with a lawsuit challenging the order. But after seeing the language, the ACLU said no substantive changes to current policy were being made and it would not immediately be filing suit. 

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process,” the group’s executive director, Anthony D. Romero, said in a statement.

The White House said earlier it was not surprised the ACLU would challenge the order.

"They love to come out against Republicans," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said. "They love to talk about debating tolerance except when it comes to people of faith. They should be celebrating that people are being protected. That’s what this executive order is about." 

She said the White House counsel's office is "prepared and recognizes the role they might play in this."

Jordan Fabian contributed to this report. 

This story was updated at 5:43 p.m.