President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to relax IRS enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches, from making political endorsements. Supporters have called the directive a victory for religious freedom, while critics are concerned that it will politicize religious institutions.
On May 4, the National Day of Prayer, Trump signed an executive action titled "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty."
The directive calls for the IRS to adopt maximum discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment and gives organizations the ability to deny their employees health services, such as contraception based on religious objections.
"We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore," Trump announced from the White House Rose Garden, flanked by religious leaders. "And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination. Never, ever."
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The president added that freedom of speech "does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship."
The Johnson Amendment, signed into law in 1954, bans tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates, but not political issues. Over the past 63 years, only the New York-based Church at Pierce Creek has had its tax-exempt status stripped from it by the IRS. The church had violated the amendment by taking out a newspaper ad advocating against former President Bill Clinton in the 1992 election, according to NPR.
Only Congress could dismantle the Johnson Amendment; Trump's executive action only orders the IRS to exercise maximum discretion in enforcing the law.
The directive also loosens regulations on companies that object to providing their employees contraception based on religious grounds. While the Affordable Care Act, commonly called "Obamacare," had exempted churches from having to offer contraception, it still required religious schools and hospitals to provide the health service to their employees.
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Trump's executive order had originally contained language enabling federal contractors to fire LGBT employees on the grounds of religious objection, but that provision was removed in the final draft.
Family Research Council President Tony Perkins praised Trump's directive as a victory for religious freedom, according to NBC News.
"The open season on Christians and other people of faith is coming to a close in America and we look forward to assisting the Trump administration in fully restoring America's First Freedom," Perkins said.
Meanwhile, other religious faith leaders have opposed the order, asserting that it will transform religious organizations into campaign machines.
"For decades, the Johnson amendment has prevented houses of worship from being turned into partisan political tools... If the effort succeeds these churches would become conduits for unregulated 'dark money' in elections, with no restrictions or disclosure requirements," Rabbi Jack Moline of Interfaith Alliance told CNN.