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Religious leaders call for keeping religious institutions apolitical despite Trump action

Religious leaders call for keeping religious institutions apolitical despite Trump action
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A group of over 4,000 religious leaders from around the country are rallying around a rule that prevents houses of worship from participating in explicitly political activities.

Specifically, they are calling on Congress not to upend the Johnson Amendment, which bans tax-exempt 501(c)3 organizations, including houses of worship, from endorsing candidates or explicitly engaging in electoral politics. President Trump has taken steps to weaken the amendment's rules. 

“Changing the law to repeal or weaken the ‘Johnson Amendment’ — the section of the tax code that prevents tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates — would harm houses of worship, which are not identified or divided by partisan lines,” the letter said.

The letter represents a number of denominations but not widespread evangelical support. Evangelicals are Trump’s largest bloc of religious supporters.

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The letter framed the amendment as a protection for religious institutions, helping them stay free of political interference and pressure to join the political fray.

“Particularly in today’s political climate, engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse,” it continued.

Although it’s rarely enforced, the rule could allow the IRS to revoke tax exempt status from a religious institution that is deemed to be overtly participating in a political campaign.

In May, Trump signed an executive order attempting to curtail the Johnson Amendment, which critics say limits free speech in the religious pulpit.

“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,” he told the National Prayer Breakfast in February.

But the order cannot overturn the statute, and may be ineffective at curtailing its enforcement. Opposition from the churches affected by the rule could curtail further action to remove it.