Trump signs order to let churches engage more in politics

"With this executive order we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty, and we are proudly re-affirming America's leadership role as a nation that protects religious freedom for everyone", he said.

According to a senior White House official, the order will reiterate the White House's commitment to religious liberty; will direct the IRS to use "maximum enforcement discretion" to ease the burdens of the Johnson Amendment, which regulates political activity of non-profits such as churches; and will call for "regulatory relief" from the Affordable Care Act mandate that employer-provided health care plans provide free birth control and other reproductive health services.

President Donald Trump said he wants to make it easier for churches to endorse political candidates, signing an executive order Thursday that allows that action now prohibited by the federal tax code.

"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", said a statement by Anthony Romero, the ACLU's executive director.

The 1954 Johnson Amendment restricts political activity by nonprofits, and past year on the campaign trail, Trump told a meeting of 100 evangelical and conservative Catholic leaders he would abolish that rule, at least inasmuch as it pertains to religious entities. The Johnson Amendment was overall rarely enforced as most churches do not endorse political candidates, but the executive order means that churches will no longer have to fear reprimand from the IRS if they do choose to participate in the future. "We need to give people the right to practice what they believe in their houses of worship and where they work and where they go and where they live".

While Trump's action was applauded by many in the Rose Garden, some religious groups criticized him for what they characterized as a vague directive that didn't live up to his campaign rhetoric. But he added, "Regrettably, this executive order leaves that promise as yet unfulfilled". In meetings with religious leaders a year ago, Trump pledged to "get rid" of IRS rules that prohibited tax-exempt groups like churches from engaging in political advocacy, NPR's Sarah McCammon reported. "We are giving our churches their voices back", he said.

"This is going to backfire on Trump", said the Reverend Jennifer Butler, chief executive of progressive policy group Faith in Public Life. Still, Lederman suggests a policy statement granting religious organizations preferential treatment as compared to other 501 (c)(3) organizations with respect to enforcement of the Johnson Amendment could violate the Constitution's establishment clause.

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TRUMP: Under this rule, if a pastor, priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status.

Trump's order was seen as much less impactful than a February draft that included a provision that could have let federal contractors discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith.

Trump himself vowed early in his presidential tenure to get rid of the measure, though completely striking the amendment would require an act of Congress.

The executive order pledges to "vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom".

Several prominent leaders of the religious left said it violated the USA separation of church and state.

"The very fact that religious freedom is part of the conversation and religious freedom is being affirmed I think is a step in the right direction", he said on CNN's "Erin Burnett OutFront" Thursday night.

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