Trump Directs Treasury to Relax Enforcement of Ban on Political Speech

President Donald Trump has signed an executive order that directs the Internal Revenue Service to relax enforcement of rules barring tax-exempt churches from political activity, the Washington Post reports.

Trump had previously declared he would "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old provision in the U.S. tax code that bans tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from endorsing political candidates. The new executive order, which states that "the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective," could be subject to legal challenge. And while a full repeal of the provision would require an act of Congress, language to that effect will be included in tax legislation currently being drafted in the House of Representatives, congressional aides told the Post.

Unveiled on the National Day of Prayer, Trump's executive order states that "[i]t shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom" and offers unspecified regulatory relief for religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, already scaled back by the courts, requiring contraception services to be included in health plans. Still, the scope of the order is significantly narrower than that of a February draft, which would have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith.

Some religious groups have criticized the president for what they characterize as a vague directive that doesn't live up to his campaign rhetoric. "We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion," Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel for the pro-faith group Alliance Defending Freedom, told the Post, "and to ensure that all Americans — no matter where they live or what their occupation is — enjoy the freedom to peacefully live and work consistent with their convictions without fear of government punishment."

The announcement by the White House was greeted with alarm within the nonprofit sector. "Today's White House executive order is an unfortunate and misguided step towards unraveling our nation's critical decades-long history of separating the good work of the charitable sector from electoral politics," the Council on Foundations said in a statement. "By weakening enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, the president's order blurs an important distinction that has existed for sixty years between tax-exempt institutions and political organizations. It also swings the door wide open for unchecked 'dark money' to flow through nonprofit organizations, allowing for unlimited, anonymous, tax-deductible political donations."

"This executive order is both vague and foreboding, a dangerous mess that is most likely unconstitutional," Alliance for Justice president Nan Aron said in a statement. "It sends threatening signals about how certain religious speech and religious institutions might be allowed to skirt laws imposed on others, and to impinge on citizens' rights in the future."