President Donald Trump took executive action Thursday to give churches and religious groups greater leeway to engage in politics without risking their tax-exempt status.
“We are giving our churches their voices back,” Trump said in a Rose Garden ceremony to announce the action that included clergy and religious leaders in the audience. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
He added that the threat of removing tax-exempt status for engaging in election activity is “a crippling financial punishment — very, very unfair.”
The order directs the Internal Revenue Service to use its discretion in the enforcement of the law, known as the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old provision of the tax code that prevents religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit, said a senior White House official who briefed reporters in advance. Religious leaders have long complained that the provision restricts their free speech.
Trump promised evangelical voters during the presidential campaign that he would “totally destroy” the law.
The order also will provide relief for religious organizations and businesses from requirements under the Affordable Care Act that employees have access to insurance coverage that includes birth control, the official said. The official declined to specify what form that relief would take.
Another White House official said the order extended to hospitals, universities and other nonprofits who object to the contraception mandate in Obamacare.
A draft of the executive action on Wednesday didn’t include language exempting religious organizations from Obama-era regulations requiring protections for gay men, lesbians and others, according to the official, adding anything that’s illegal currently would still be illegal.
Eliminating the Johnson Amendment — which bars many tax-exempt organizations from directly endorsing candidates for office — would require action by Congress, and it wasn’t clear what Trump would do to bypass the law. The official declined to say whether the administration would follow with efforts to change the law, which was adopted in 1954.
Shortly after taking office, Trump reiterated his vow to roll back the restriction.
“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and openly without fear of retribution,” Trump said at his first National Prayer Breakfast. “I will do that, remember.”
The announcement of the actions coincided with the National Day of Prayer. Trump hosted a dinner Wednesday night with members of the White House Evangelical Advisory Board.