Pres. Trump signs executive order to limit IRS action over church political activity

President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Rose Garden of the of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017, asking the IRS to use "maximum enforcement discretion" over the regulation, known as Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and nonprofits (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is seeking to further weaken enforcement of an IRS rule barring churches and tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates, though his executive order on religious freedom is disappointing some of his supporters.

As he marked the National Day of Prayer at the White House Thursday, Trump signed the order asking the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” over the rarely enforced regulation, known as Johnson Amendment.

“This financial threat against the faith community is over,” Trump said. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

Trump spoke to religious leaders at the Rose Garden, where he also announced he’ll visit Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Vatican — including a meeting with Pope Francis — on his first foreign trip.

His executive order also promises “regulatory relief” for groups with religious objections to the preventive services requirement in the Affordable Care Act, according to a White House official. Those requirements include covering birth control and could apply to religious groups that object to paying for contraception.

The White House has not yet released the full text of the order, but it appears to fall short of what religious conservatives expected from Trump, who won overwhelming support from evangelicals by promising to “protect Christianity” and religious freedom.

President Donald Trump holds up a signed executive order aimed at easing an IRS rule limiting political activity for churches, Thursday, May 4, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump hosted members of his evangelical advisory board at the White House Wednesday night and met earlier Thursday with Roman Catholic leaders.

Ralph Reed, a longtime evangelical leader and founder of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, called the executive order’s provisions an excellent “first step.”

He said he was “thrilled” by the language on the IRS restrictions. “This administratively removes the threat of harassment,” Reed said in a phone interview. “That is a really big deal.”

But Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group, said the summary of the executive order released late Wednesday leaves Trump’s campaign promises to people of faith unfulfilled.

Baylor said directing the IRS not to enforce limits on political speech, while leaving the restrictions in place, still gives too much discretion to agents. And Baylor called the promised “regulatory relief” from the birth control coverage requirement “disappointingly vague.”

Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College in Connecticut who writes on religious freedom, called the actions described by the White House “very weak tea,” especially compared to a draft order leaked earlier this year. That draft contained sweeping provisions on conscience protection for faith-based ministries, schools and federal workers across an array of agencies.

Trump promised to “totally destroy” the law prohibiting the political activities when he spoke in February at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile Washington event with faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries. But fully abolishing the regulation would take an act of Congress.

The White House official, who was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, told reporters Wednesday night that the order will direct the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” over the rule. The official insisted on anonymity despite criticism from president himself of the media’s use of anonymous sources.

The Johnson amendment, named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was put into force in 1954. The policy allows a wide range of advocacy on political issues, but in the case of houses of worship, it bars electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit.

The IRS does not make public its investigations of such cases, but only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status as a result of the prohibition. The Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, New York, was penalized for taking out newspaper ads telling Christians they could not vote for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. Even so, some religious leaders have argued the rule has a chilling effect on free speech.

While Trump’s action on the Johnson Amendment aims to please religious conservatives, not all of them are on board.

In a February survey of evangelical leaders conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents churches from about 40 denominations, 89 percent said pastors should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit. Nearly 100 clergy and faith leaders from across a range of denominations sent a letter last month to congressional leaders urging them to uphold the regulation. They said the IRS rule protects houses of worship and religious groups from political pressure.

Easing political activity rules for churches also raises questions about whether churches could be pulled into the campaign finance sphere and effectively become “dark money” committees that play partisan politics without disclosing donors.

The order’s health care provision could apply to groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who run more than two dozen nursing homes for impoverished seniors, and have moral objections to paying the birth control costs of women in their health plans. The Obama administration created a buffer meant to shield those groups, but they say it didn’t go far enough. They have continued to press their case in the courts, and last year the Supreme Court asked lower courts to take another look at the issue.

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