President Donald Trump, in an executive order released Thursday — timed to coincide with National Prayer Day — loosened some of the Internal Revenue Service restrictions on churches that prevented pastors from preaching about politics from the pulpits.
Specifically, he called for the easing of the tax agency’s enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old rule that bans churches from openly endorsing political candidates.
The rule’s been used by far-leftists and atheist groups, like the Freedom From Religious Foundation, in recent years to clamp all types of speech in churches that seem applicable to modern day issues, however. The FFRF, for example, complained in 2012 to the IRS that a bishop was breaking the Johbnson Amendment by telling readers of a local newspaper in a letter to the editor that Catholics, in good conscience, could not vote for candidates who favored gay marriage and abortion.
Trump’s newest executive order makes clear: such enforcement is above and beyond the scope of the Johnson Amendment.
USA Today writes:
“Seeking to redefine the balance between church and state, President Trump signed an executive order that – depending on your point of view – either protects religious liberty, licenses religious groups to practice discrimination, or doesn’t go far enough in any direction.
“‘We’re a nation of believers,’ Trump told supporters during a signing ceremony in the Rose Garden at the White House. “Faith is deeply embedded in the history of our country… No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the American government and the tenets of their faith.’
“Trump’s executive order, which he signed on Thursday to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, calls for easing of Internal Revenue Service enforcement of the so-called ‘Johnson Amendment,’ which prohibits churches from getting directly involved in political campaigns.
“While only Congress can formally do away with the law, this will pave the way for churches and other religious leaders to speak about politics and endorse candidates without worrying about losing their tax-exempt status.
“Trump, criticizing the Johnson amendment as a violation of free speech rights, views his actions as fulfillment of a campaign pledge. “I talked about it a lot” during last year’s presidential campaign, and “promised to take action,” he said. “I won.”
“The Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty also aims to make it easier for employers with religious objections not to include contraception coverage in workers’ health care plans, although it would be up to federal agencies to determine how that would happen.
“At the ceremony, Trump recognized members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of nuns which runs homes for the elderly. The group objected to the Obama administration’s policy that while religious organizations don’t have to directly provide birth control to employees, workers could still get it through a third party. ‘Your long ordeal will soon be over,’ he told them.
“Vowing to fight what he called discrimination against religious people and institutions, Trump said, ‘We will not allow people of faith to be bullied, targeted, or silenced any more.’ The government, he added, has been used as ‘a weapon’ against religion and people of faith.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Geller Report.