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Donald Trump set to ease political restrictions on religious groups

LiveMint logoLiveMint 04-05-2017 Jennifer Jacobs

Washington: President Donald Trump will take executive action Thursday to give churches and religious groups greater leeway to engage in politics without risking their tax-exempt status, according to a senior White House official.

The action will coincide with the National Day of Prayer, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plan hasn’t been formally announced. Trump was hosting a dinner on Wednesday night with members of the White House Evangelical Advisory Board.

Trump’s order will direct the Internal Revenue Service to use its discretion in the enforcement of the law, known as the Johnson Amendment, a decades-old provision of the tax code that prevents religious leaders from endorsing candidates from the pulpit. Religious leaders have long complained that the provision restricts their free speech.

Trump promised evangelical voters during the presidential campaign that he would “totally destroy” the law.

The order also will provide relief for religious organizations, such as the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Roman Catholic nuns, and businesses forced by the Affordable Care Act to provide insurance coverage for birth control to their employees, the official said, who declined to specify what form that relief would take.

Election promise

“On life, I am, and will remain, pro-life,” Trump wrote to the Catholic Leadership Conference just before the election last fall. “I will make absolutely certain religious orders like The Little Sisters of Poor are not bullied by the federal government because of their religious beliefs.” A White House official earlier Wednesday said the order extended to hospitals, universities and other nonprofits who object to the contraception mandate in Obamacare.

A draft of the executive action on Wednesday didn’t include language exempting religious organizations from Obama-era regulations requiring protections for gay men, lesbians and others, according to the official, saying anything that’s illegal currently would still be illegal.

Eliminating the Johnson Amendment—which bars many tax-exempt organizations from directly endorsing candidates for office—would require action by Congress, and it wasn’t clear what Trump would do to bypass the law. The official declined to say whether the administration would follow with efforts to change the law, which was adopted in 1954.

Shortly after taking office, Trump reiterated his vow to roll back the restriction.

“I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and openly without fear of retribution,” Trump said at his first National Prayer Breakfast. “I will do that, remember.”

During the dinner Wednesday, the gathering of religious leaders learned that House GOP leaders believed they have enough votes to pass the Obamacare reform bill. The president didn’t say a word about the health-care vote, two guests said.

But both Trump and vice president Mike Pence gave remarks the dinner, thanking the religious community for helping rally the votes to elect them. Bloomberg

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