Trump to ease enforcement of limits on church political activity
President Trump is set to sign an executive order Thursday to make it easier to for churches and other religious groups to participate in politics without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.
Trump plans to sign an order in the morning that attempts to overcome a provision in the federal tax code prohibiting religious organizations from directly opposing or endorsing political candidates. This prohibition is known as the “Johnson amendment,” because it was proposed by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas) in the 1950s.
Easing restrictions on church political activity has been a longtime priority for Trump, social conservatives and a number of congressional Republicans. They argue the Johnson amendment stifles churches’ First Amendment rights.
A White House official confirmed the plans, first reported by The New York Times, to The Hill.
The executive order would direct the IRS to exercise “maximum enforcement discretion” on the Johnson Amendment, according to a senior administration official.
Trump has repeatedly called for repeal of the Johnson amendment, saying in February that he would “totally destroy” it.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) has said he wants to include repeal of the Johnson amendment in tax-reform legislation. And the House Oversight Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the Johnson amendment on Thursday, the National Day of Prayer.
But a number of Democrats, charities and even some religious groups have supported the current ban on political activity by religious groups and nonprofits.
They point out that the Johnson amendment doesn’t just apply to religious institutions but also applies to other charities with status as 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations. And they are concerned that it could lead to a politicization of nonprofits and an influx of “dark money” in politics.
Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden (Ore.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Bob Casey Jr. (Pa.) on Wednesday sent a letter to congressional GOP leaders and key committee chairmen, urging them to keep the ban.
“Proposals to weaken the prohibition on political campaign activity by charities will effectively lead to the elimination of our nation’s campaign finance laws,” they said.
The Democrats also argued that “nonpartisanship is the cornerstone of Americans’ trust in the charitable sector,” and that if charities started in engage in political activities, it would undermine their credibility. Additionally, the senators argued that Johnson Amendment ensures that federal grants to charities “are free from political conflicts of interest.”
Earlier in the day Wednesday, civil rights and LGBTQ advocates rallied outside the White House after reports indicated that Trump was preparing to sign an executive order on religious freedom Thursday they fear will allow individuals and organizations to discriminate against women and LGBTQ Americans.
But the White House indicated Wednesday that no such executive order is immediately forthcoming.
It is unclear if the religious liberty executive order will be coming later, or if the Johnson amendment one is meant to replace it.
A draft of the religious liberty order leaked to The Nation in February allowed federal contractors, their employees, religious organizations, which included closely held corporations, and groups receiving federal funds the ability to claim broad religious objections to same-sex marriage, abortion, premarital sex and trans identity.
In a statement, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey denounced the anticipated order as discriminatory.
“President Trump’s rumored Executive Order should horrify anyone who has read our Constitution or believes in the principles of equality and decency that define our country,” she said.
“The order would be a license to discriminate against LGBT Americans, women seeking health care and countless others. The President should have learned by now that when he acts based on prejudice and hate, when he invents false reasons to demean and disparage, we will challenge him at every turn. And we will win.”
The American Civil Liberties Union said it is planning to file a lawsuit immediately if Trump signs such an order.
—Jordan Fabian contributed. Updated 9:20 p.m.