Trump limits IRS control over church political activity

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 on 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’s executive order 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.

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.

By Chad Fleck

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