- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2017

President Trump will sign an executive order Thursday to make it easier for churches to actively participate in politics without risking their tax-exempt status, and to protect faith-based groups from being forced to pay for abortion services under Obamacare, the White House said.

A senior White House official confirmed Wednesday night that Mr. Trump will take the action at a National Day of Prayer event as he hosts conservative religious leaders at the White House. The official said the order is “another example of the president fulfilling his campaign promises.”

The order is aimed at easing an IRS provision that prohibits churches from directly opposing or endorsing political candidates. Mr. Trump has been promising to get rid of the measure.

The action will direct the IRS to immediately “exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden” of the so-called Johnson amendment, a tax provision dating from 1954.

The action also will allow non-profit organizations to deny certain health coverage for religious reasons. It’s aimed at protecting Christian groups like Little Sisters of the Poor that were “persecuted by the Obama administration” from being forced to pay for abortion services, the official said.

“They’ve been persecuted by Obamacare’s preventive services mandate,” the official said. “This order would provide regulatory relief.”

The Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover contraceptives at no cost to patients. After a Supreme Court ruled that the mandate violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the government created an accommodation for closely held, for-profit businesses that have a religious objection, involving filling out a form to arrange for a third party to provide coverage instead.

But the Little Sisters and several other religious groups say the accommodation still forces them to be complicit in providing people with contraception against their religious beliefs.

By administratively removing the Johnson amendment, Faith & Freedom Coalition Chairman Ralph Reed said, the president’s order “removes a sword of Damocles that has hung over the faith community for decades.”

He said ending the Obamacare mandates that violate the religious faith of the Little Sisters of the Poor and other faith-based nonprofits “lifts a cloud of fear over people of faith and ensures they will no longer be subjected to litigation, harassment and persecution simply for expressing their religious beliefs.”

“This is just the first bite at the apple, not the last,” Mr. Reed said. We still support the full statutory repeal of the Johnson Amendment and Obamacare mandates, but this order is a giant step in the right direction in protecting the First Amendment rights of Christians and other Americans of conscience and faith.”

Attorney Stuart Lark said religious organizations have a “vital interest in their ability to exercise and express their beliefs as communities of faith.”

“Our country has a long history of protecting religious organizations from laws that substantially burden their ability to act in accordance with their beliefs,” said Mr. Lark, who has represented religious organizations for two decades. “These protections foster pluralism and minimize the impact of government action on private religious choices, and in so doing they advance core principles underlying the First Amendment. To the extent the executive Order expands these protections, it will be a welcome development for the many diverse faith communities in this country.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast in February, Mr. Trump vowed to “destroy” the provision, known as the Johnson Amendment.

“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution,” Mr. Trump said at the time.

The 1954 provision prevents tax-exempt organizations from campaigning for or endorsing political candidates. Some Republican lawmakers and many conservative faith organizations want to repeal it.

Two House Republican lawmakers and Sen. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican, have introduced legislation that would amend the tax code to “restore free speech” for churches and nonprofits as long as the speech takes place “in the ordinary course” of the organization’s activities, and related expenses are minimal.

Some human-rights groups, including the ACLU, expressed concerned Wednesday that Mr. Trump also is planning to issue an order on religious liberty that, in their view, would allow religious organizations to discriminate against the LGBT community by repealing Obama-era regulations. A draft of such an order was circulating early in the administration, and Mr. Trump’s daughter Ivanka was said to be one of those advisers urging him to shelve the proposed action.

The White House official said no such action is contemplated.

The ACLU sent an “action alert” to its members Wednesday night, urging them to flood the White House with emails to protest the impending order on religious liberty.

“Religious freedom does NOT mean the right to discriminate against or harm anyone,” the group said. “This White House thinks it can actively encourage and legitimize discrimination against LGBT people, women, and religious minorities. The ACLU won’t stand for it.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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