By John Wagner
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump on Thursday said he would direct the Internal Revenue Service to relax enforcement of rules barring tax-exempt churches from participating in politics as part of a much-anticipated executive order on religious liberties.
The order - which Trump formally unveiled in a Rose Garden ceremony with Christian leaders - also offers unspecified “regulatory relief” for religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, already scaled back by the courts, that required contraception services as part of health plans, the officials said.
“For too long the federal government has used the state as a weapon against people of faith,” Trump said, later telling the religious leaders gathered for the event that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say . . . No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
But the sweep of the order - unveiled on a National Day of Prayer - was significantly narrower than a February draft, which had alarmed civil libertarians, gay rights and other liberal advocacy groups and prompted threats of lawsuits.
Among other things, that version included a controversial provision that could have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith.
The order released Thursday instead included a blanket statement that “it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty.”
While Trump’s action was applauded by many in the Rose Garden, some religious groups criticized him for what they characterized as a vague directive that didn’t live up to his campaign rhetoric.
“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion 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,” said Gregory Baylor, senior counsel for the pro-fatith group Alliance Defending Freedom
As a candidate and shortly after taking office, Trump declared he would “totally destroy” what’s known as the Johnson Amendment, a six-decade-old ban on churches and other tax-exempt organizations supporting political candidates.
The provision is written in the tax code and would require an act of Congress to repeal fully.
The order instead directs the Internal Revenue Service to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion of the prohibition.” Such a direction could be subject to legal challenge and would not necessarily extend beyond a Trump presidency.
“President Trump’s executive order removes a sword of Damocles that has hung over the faith community for decades by administratively repealing the Johnson Amendment and restoring the right to political speech by pastors, churches and ministries,” Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a leading advocate of repealing the prohibition, said in a statement.
Violations of the Johnson Amendment are infrequently pursued by the IRS, but evangelicals claim it has been used selectively against them, preventing Christian leaders from speaking freely in church.
The amendment is named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced it in the Senate in 1954, nine years before he became president.
The provision applies to all tax-exempt organizations, including many colleges and foundations.
Under current law, churches are free to promote political candidates but must forgo such activity to obtain tax-exempt status.
The repeal of the Johnson Amendment is also being written into the tax legislation being developed in the House of Representatives, according to congressional aides.
But both the provision and the broader legislation face substantial hurdles.
Trump’s religious liberties order was aimed at a key part of his base: Exit polls in November showed Trump defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 80 percent to 16 percent among white evangelical Christians.
Conservative Christian churches have become increasingly concerned that the federal government could come after their tax-exempt status if they profess opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage. But some pastors have endorsed the Johnson amendment, arguing it protects what is supposed to be a spiritual haven from the pernicious intrusion of politics.
Before the release of the order, critics were particularly concerned about a provision in the February draft providing leeway to federal contractors to discriminate in the name of religious freedom.
That provision was not included in Thursday’s order.
A provision that was included in the order is a response to the issue raised in the prominent Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor cases before the Supreme Court - whether employers must comply with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that insurance cover contraception for women.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the court said some employers can opt out of paying for their employees’ birth control coverage for religious reasons. Afterward, the Obama administration announced new rules to allow for the insurance company to pay for the contraception instead.
The order calls for “regulatory relief” for those parties but does not spell out what that might entail. The White House official who briefed the media on Wednesday night did not elaborate.
Sandhya Somashekhar and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report.