Trump eases ban on political activity by churches

President Trump signed an executive order Thursday making it easier for churches and other religious groups to engage in politics without endangering their tax-exempt status. 

Trump approved the measure in the Rose Garden at the White House surrounded by clergy and leaders of faith organizations during a National Day of Prayer event.

“Today my administration is leading by example as we take historic steps to protect religious liberty in the United States of America,” the president said. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.” 

The measure is designed to ease enforcement of a provision in the federal tax code known as the Johnson Amendment that bars religious institutions from endorsing or opposing political candidates and parties. It directs the IRS to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion” of the amendment, according to the White House. 

Additionally, it directs several agencies to consider regulatory relief for those who object to ObamaCare’s preventive service mandate on religious grounds.

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Trump is fulfilling a promise he made to social conservatives, who strongly backed him during the 2016 campaign. Those groups have long argued that the Johnson Amendment violates their First Amendment rights. 

Scrapping the amendment was a major rallying cry for Trump on the campaign trail and he made it one of his earliest promises once he took office.  

“Under my administration, free  speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or synagogue or any other house of worship,” Trump said. “We are giving our churches their voices back, we are giving them back in their highest form.”

“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, less than two weeks after his inauguration. 

Many Republican lawmakers have also called for repeal of the Johnson Amendment, and doing so was part of the 2016 GOP party platform. 

Rep. Jody Hice (R-Ga.) said at House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Thursday that the Johnson Amendment has had a "chilling effect through fear and intimidation from IRS threats."

Hice has introduced legislation to allow churches and other nonprofits to engage in political activity as long as it's in the normal course of business. He said he appreciates Trump's executive order, but added that "it's time that we rid our nation of this unconstitutional law by way of legislative action." 

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin BradyKevin Patrick BradyKey author of GOP tax law joins Ernst and Young Lawmakers beat lobbyists at charity hockey game Democrats step up work to get Trump tax returns MORE (R-Texas) has expressed his intention to include repeal of the amendment in tax-reform legislation that his committee is preparing.

"I look forward to continuing to work with the Administration to eliminate the damaging effects of the Johnson Amendment," he said in a statement.

But the Democrats as well as some charities and religious groups have been fighting for the Johnson Amendment to be preserved. They argue that churches already can engage in some political activities and that easing the Johnson Amendment would politicize nonprofits and increase the use of “dark money” in politics. 

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) said at the Oversight hearing that Trump's executive order will have "little effect," because the "IRS rarely brings enforcement actions against houses of worship that engage in political activity."

Shortly after the order was released, the American Civil Liberties Union and Public Citizen said they planned to sue the administration over the order. However, they later decided against doing so, noting that the order doesn't actually change the current law.

“We were fully prepared to sue if the president carried through on his promise to gut the law and allow our churches and charities to be turned into conduits for political spending,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Thankfully, Trump’s order doesn’t do that, but his reckless statements likely will encourage the illegal funneling of dark money through religious institutions and ostensibly religious nonprofits.”

ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero called the order "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," he said. "The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services." 

Some social conservatives voiced frustration the order does not include provisions to allow them to oppose LGBT rights on religious grounds.

Civil rights groups earlier this week were gearing up for a battle if those provisions were included. 

updated at 6:54 p.m.