May 112017

Wash. D.C.

President Trump plans to mark National Day of Prayer issuing an executive order that makes it easier for churches and other religious groups to actively participate in politics without risking their tax exempt status several administration officials said. Taking action as he hosts conservative religious leaders, Mr. Trump’s executive order would attempt to overcome a provision in the federal tax code that prohibits religious organizations like churches from directly opposing or supporting political candidates. The move is likely to be hailed by some faith leaders, who have long complained that the law stifles their freedom of expression. But the order falls short of a more sweeping effort to protect religious liberties that has been pushed by conservative religious leaders since Mr. Trump’s election.

Many clergy members say they do not want to endorse political candidates from the pulpit because it could split their congregations and distract from their religious messages. This appears to be the case even among evangelicals, although it is Mr. Trump’s conservative evangelical advisers who encouraged him to address the issue. A coalition of evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews has been eagerly awaiting a so-called religious liberty order, which they also hope will exempt religious entities from providing their employees with coverage for contraception in their health care plans.

If is unclear how the executive order will get around the tax code provision for churches, since eliminating it would require legislation by Congress. But faith leaders who have had discussions with White House officials about the issue said Mr. Trump could direct the Internal Revenue Service not to actively investigate or pursue cases of political activism by members of the clergy in churches. Such a directive might be challenged in court. But in the meantime, pastors could feel freer to actively participate in coming elections without fear of being investigated and having their tax exempt status revoked by the federal government.

Churches and clergy are free to speak out on political and social issues–and many do–but the Johnson amendment served to inhibit them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

  •  05/11

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