Trump eases rules on political activity for religious institutions

By Andrew V. Pestano Follow @AVPLive9 Contact the Author   |   Updated May 4, 2017 at 1:35 PM
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May 4 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order easing the enforcement of rules prohibiting tax-exempt religious institutions from involvement in politics.

"We are giving our churches their voices back," Trump said at the White House Rose Garden flanked by religious leaders and White House officials.

Trump signed the order, called "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," which promises to "protect and vigorously promote religious liberty."

The order also directs federal agencies to exempt some religious organizations, such as churches, charities and universities, from mandates under former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act that require employers to provide employees with health coverage for contraception.

Trump signed the order during the National Day of Prayer. White House officials said Trump walked back from a provision seen in an earlier draft leaked in February that could allow federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith.

Trump's executive order will instead give the IRS discretion on whether to enforce the Johnson Amendment, a U.S. tax code provision implemented in 1954 that prohibits most non-profits from participating in any political activity, whether it's to support or oppose a particular candidate. The executive order will leave it up to the IRS to determine who to punish for possible Johnson Amendment violations.

"Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation," Trump said. "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore."

In February during the National Prayer Breakfast, Trump promised to "get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution."

Johnson Amendment violations can result in a revocation of a group's tax-exempt status and excise tax liability. Republicans have tried for years to repeal the Johnson Amendment, arguing that it hinders freedom of speech. A repeal of the provision requires approval from Congress.

Mark Burns, a pastor who is a longtime supporter of Trump, told NBC News that Trump signing the order made it a "great day for religious freedom in America."

Doug G. Ware contributed to this report.

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