Trump relaxes political limits on religious groups

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order Thursday with the intention of easing restrictions imposed by the Johnson Amendment, the rule limiting political participation by tax-exempt religious groups.

"It would create an unprecedented license to discriminate with taxpayers' funds, undermine women's health care and elevate one narrow set of religious beliefs over all others", said Sarah Warbelow, legal director for the Human Rights Campaign, of a draft leaked earlier in the week.

"We are watching, we are paying attention.

We're looking forward to having religious leaders from a multitude of backgrounds come to the White House and celebrate this day with us", he said.

The signing is also seen as a victory for Vice President Mike Pence, who has advocated for similair policies in his home state of Indiana.

Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College in CT 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.

National Public Radio reports that the IRS has only invoked the Johnson Amendment once, using it to revoke the tax-exempt status of a church that took out a full-page newspaper advertisement opposing former president Bill Clinton in 1992. "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore".

"Anything that would now be illegal under current law would still be illegal, we're not changing the law", a senior White House official said on the eve of Trump signing the executive order in the presence of a group of religious leaders. The event will bring national religious leaders to the White House.

As for the Johnson amendment, if Trump is hoping that today's order will lead to a flood of endorsements for his re-election campaign, he may be in for a rude surprise.

The White House says the order is necessary to protect religious groups that had been "persecuted by the Obama administration" such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group which faced huge fines over their refusal to pay for contraception under Obamacare.

Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the pro-faith group Alliance Defending Freedom, was among the Christian conservatives to criticize the order, calling it "disappointingly vague" and questioning whether the IRS would follow through with Trump's directive.

"No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith", Trump said.

Civil liberties groups have already announced intentions to fight Trump's latest executive order in the courts.

Recent Supreme Court decisions, like the legalization of same-sex marriage, have left many religious conservatives feeling marginalized. A repeal of the provision requires approval from Congress.

DAVID SAPERSTEIN: What is a pastor to if a congregant who's a major donor says, I'll give you the gift this year but only if you endorse such a candidate?

Even the scaled-back version prompted threats of lawsuits, although some groups said that after reviewing the order they would hold fire on any legal action, arguing that it will have little impact.

  • Arturo Norris