Trump Eases Political Limits for Religious Groups

(CN) – President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order doing away with an IRS rule that says religious organizations and other nonprofits that endorse political candidates risk losing their tax-exempt status.

The executive order also allows religious organizations to opt out of providing birth control under the Affordable Care Act.

A number of religious groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, have gone to court due to their moral objections to paying for contraception.

The president signed the order in the Rose Garden during a National Day of Prayer ceremony with religious leaders.

“Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation,” he said.  “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”

On Wednesday night, he hosted a White House dinner for members of his evangelical advisory board. He is scheduled to meet with Roman Catholic leaders in the Oval Office before singing the executive order.

The IRS being repealed by the order is known as the Johnson amendment, which was sponsored by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson. The regulation went into effect in 1954, and is a provision in the U.S. tax code barring any nonprofit organization from endorsing or opposing a political candidate.

Trump previously vowed to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”

Religious organizations and other socially conservative groups have long held that the rarely enforced Johnson amendment chills their rights under the First Amendment.

With the order, the IRS is instructed to inflict “maximum enforcement discretion” on the amendment.

Opponents of the order have criticized it as just another way to welcome an influx of “dark money” in politics.

Democratic senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, and Bill Nelson of Florida submitted a letter to senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan decrying the order on Wednesday.

“Nonpartisanship is the cornerstone of Americans’ trust in the charitable sector. For more than 60 years the rules prohibiting political activity by charities have guaranteed the public that their valuable charitable donations will be used for social good, not politically electioneering,” the senators wrote. ” Feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, ministering to the spirit, and other critical community services provided by the charitable sector are not partisan issues.”

Further, Wyden said, a repeal of the Johnson amendment would “force legitimate charities to compete with special interest political groups for limited charitable donations.”

“Proposals to weaken the prohibition on political campaign activity by charities will effectively lead to the elimination of our nation’s campaign finance laws,” the senators said in the May 3 letter.

In addition to repealing the Johnson amendment, the president was also reportedly considering lines in the executive order which vaguely declared the administration as a protector and promoter of religious liberty.

That would include regulatory relief for groups with religious objections to preventative healthcare services promised under the Affordable Care Act, like birth control.

While a draft of the order was being considered this week, it was reported that a portion of the decree would have allowed faith-based organizations and companies to avoid serving or hiring LGBT or any other group that affronts their  personal religious beliefs.

The House Oversight and Government Reform committee convened Thursday to discuss the Johnson amendment, with several Republicans expressing their support for the executive order.

The hearing was rancorous from start to finish. Democrats and their GOP colleagues argued at length the fundamental purpose of the now retired regulation and how it comported with the First Amendment.

While some Republicans slammed the Johnson amendment as oppressive legislation that silences houses of worship, democrats pushed back fiercely and often.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democrat from Illinois, said the repeal of the Johnson amendment will allow more dark money to enter politics.

“Houses of worship can already engage in debate, engage in voter registration drives, encourage people to vote, transport voters to polling places even, and there are even areas, with very few boundaries, where houses of worship can lobby for specific legislation,” Krishnamoorthi said. “But current law does prohibit fat cat political spenders for laundering their contributions through churches … this is about money. Not speech. Pure and simple.”

Rep. Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, disagreed, saying that churches have no voice at all because of the amendment.

“This is not about dark money. This about nothing else other than free speech and making sure that the moral compass of the country, from its founding, continues to be the governing principle for the American people,” Meadows said.

The American Civil Liberties Union announced Thursday afternoon it is filing a lawsuit against the Trump administration for its latest executive order.

“The actions taken today are a broadside to our country’s long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state,” said ACLU executive director Anthony Romero. “Whether by executive order or through backroom deals, it’s clear that the Trump administration and Congressional leadership are using religion as a wedge to further divide the country and permit discrimination. We intend to file suit today.”

“America is a deeply religious country because religious freedom and tolerance of divergent religious views thrive. President Trump’s efforts to promote religious freedom are thinly-veiled efforts to unleash his conservative religious base into the political arena while also using religion to discriminate. It’s a dual dose of pandering to a base and denying reproductive care. We will see Trump in court, again,” Romero said.

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