Amid prayers and Christian music in the White House Rose Garden, President Trump signed an executive order Thursday to make it easier for churches to engage in partisan politics and to protect faith-based groups from being forced to pay for abortion services under Obamacare.
“We are giving our churches their voices back,” Mr. Trump told religious and conservative leaders on the National Day of Prayer. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”
Mr. Trump signed the order directing the IRS not to take “adverse action” against the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations who engage in political speech. His action undermines the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which has barred charitable groups, including churches, from overtly endorsing or opposing political candidates.
The president also directed the Treasury, Labor and Health and Human Services departments to consider changes to Obamacare’s mandate for employers to provide contraceptive services in health-care plans.
While some conservatives said the order doesn’t go far enough to protect religious liberty, most conservatives praised the president’s move as a long overdue step.
“The open season on Christians and other people of faith is coming to a close in America and we look forward to assisting the Trump administration in fully restoring America’s First Freedom,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins.
Liberal groups and progressives slammed Mr. Trump’s order as pandering to evangelicals, and warned that the action would lead to more anonymous political donations and an erosion of health services for women.
The ACLU threatened to sue to block the order from taking effect, but later backed off that threat, calling the order a meaningless “photo op” that wouldn’t change policies.
Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said the president’s order “is just an expansion of the disastrous Supreme Court Citizens United decision which opened the floodgates of secret money into our elections, taking the buying of influence from elected officials into the shadows and away from public view.”
“By funneling their political spending through charities and religious groups, big money donors will also get a tax deduction, forcing other taxpayers to foot the bill for this subsidized political activity,” she said.
Mr. Trump said he was following through on a campaign promise after hearing frequent complaints from faith leaders that the prohibition against politics from the pulpit was an unlawful curb on their rights of free speech and religious expression.
The Johnson Amendment is actually a law, which was championed by Democratic Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas when he ran for re-election. His target was not a church but a conservative nonprofit that advocated for the election of his opponent.
Johnson, then Senate minority leader, introduced an amendment to Section 501(c)(3) of the federal tax code on tax-exempt charitable organizations, specifying that they couldn’t be involved in partisan politics. The measure wasn’t considered controversial in Congress; there is no record of any debate.
While conservatives and evangelical leaders have been pushing for a repeal of the law, the president cited the example of black churches working for social and political change from the pulpit, and raised the IRS targeting of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for audit in the early 1960s.
“Perhaps there is no greater example than the historic role of the African-American church as the agent for social progress, spurring our nation to greater justice and equality,” he said. “We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church, and progress from the pew.”
The directive also is aimed at allowing nonprofit organizations — such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, who have waged a court battle against Obamacare’s mandate — to deny contraceptive coverage for religious reasons. Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price said his agency will use the order to “re-examine” Obamacare’s mandate on contraceptive services.
“We will be taking action in short order to follow the president’s instruction to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees,” Mr. Price said.
As Mr. Trump spoke about the Little Sisters’ case, he even invited some of the nuns in the audience to join him on the stage.
“Your long ordeal will soon be over,” the president told the nuns.
When one of the sisters told Mr. Trump the court case has been going on for five years, the president asked her, “You had good lawyers?”
“Where are your lawyers?” the president asked, scanning the audience. “Stand up, c’mon, stand up. Do you mind if I use your lawyers? Good job.”
He added, “With this executive order, we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty.”
The Affordable Care Act requires insurance plans to cover contraceptives at no cost to patients.
After the 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, which involves 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.
The president devoted most of his comments to ending the restrictions of the Johnson Amendment, saying he was halting “a financial threat against the faith community.”
“No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” the president said to thunderous applause from the audience of religious and conservative leaders, including Dr. Franklin Graham. “In America, we do not fear people speaking freely from the pulpit. We embrace it.”
The event in the Rose Garden began with a series of interfaith prayers and a guitar performance by Steven Curtis Chapman, a Christian music singer and social activist, who thanked Mr. Trump and sang two songs, including an acoustic version of The Lord’s Prayer.