By Matthew Townsend
Churches in the United States may now exercise more freedom of speech on political issues, thanks to an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on May 4.
The order directs the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” of the regulation, which prohibits churches and tax-exempt groups from participating in campaigns and endorsing candidates. Churches and other 501(c)3 organizations that stray into political speech risk losing tax-exempt status.
Trump signed the order on the National Day of Prayer at the White House. “This financial threat against the faith community is over,” Trump said. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
The order did not repeal the amendment but directed the IRS to stop enforcing it. During a speech in February, Trump had promised to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. Congress approved the law in 1954 under the guidance of Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who later became president. Repealing the amendment requires an act of Congress.
Some religious leaders and pastors expressed dissatisfaction to the Associated Press about the order, saying it was inadequate. Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, told the AP that the order leaves Trump’s campaign promises unfulfilled.
Evangelical leader Ralph Reed, however, said the order was a first step. “This administratively removes the threat of harassment,” Reed told the AP. “That is a really big deal.”
The text of the order was not available May 5.
Episcopalians have been more tight-lipped on the order’s suggested expansion of speech rights, which Trump also says will provide “regulatory relief” by suspending Affordable Care Act requirements that require employers to provide access to birth control, including abortifacients.
Employers ranging from Hobby Lobby to Little Sisters of the Poor filed lawsuits to seek exceptions from that requirement.
Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officers of the Episcopal Church, told TLC by email that she did not anticipate comment from Presiding Bishop Michael Curry.
The Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, Bishop of Utah, told FOX 13 in Salt Lake City that he had mixed feelings on the order.
“On the one level, I’m happy he did not attempt to allow businesses to discriminate on religious grounds,” he said. “On the other hand, there is a fair amount to be concerned about what may be coming next.”
Hayashi said he tries to avoid endorsing candidates or parties in his work as a bishop, and cited fear that “churches can simply become tools of whatever candidate or wealthy individual wants to get so-and-so elected to office.”
The Episcopal Church is no stranger to the effects of the Johnson Amendment’s effects. In 2005, In 2005, the IRS warned All Saints Church in Pasadena, California, that it risked losing tax-exempt status because of a guest sermon delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election.
The Rev. George F. Regas, former rector of the parish, called the Iraq war a disaster. The IRS cited a description of the sermon as a “searing indictment of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq” and noted that the sermon described “tax cuts as inimical to the values of Jesus.”
The IRS dropped the matter two years later.
Image: President Trump signs an executive order on religious liberty during the National Day of Prayer event at the White House. • Carlos Barria/Reuters