President Donald Trump, who was strongly backed by Evangelical Christian voters, has promised to ‘totally destroy’ a 1954 US law barring churches from politics.
President Trump vowed on Thursday to overturn a law restricting political speech by tax-exempt churches, a potentially huge victory for the religious right and a gesture to evangelicals, a voting bloc he attracted to his campaign by promising to free up their pulpits.
Mr. Trump said his administration would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing political candidates at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.
“Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us,” Mr. Trump told religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast. “That is why I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
Repealing the law would require approval by Congress, which could prove challenging given that Democrats, and even some Republicans, would resist what many view as an erosion of the separation between church and state.
Still, Mr. Trump’s promise to repeal the law fulfills a campaign pledge — one that became a centerpiece of his effort to mollify the religious right, which was slow to warm to his insurgent candidacy. Eliminating the measure has been a goal of many social conservatives, who argue that it unfairly restricts clergy members from expressing themselves by endorsing, or speaking out against, political candidates.
Many see government persecution in limits on their official religious activities at work, and complain that the Internal Revenue Service — an agency that the right views with a special ire — singles out churches dominated by Christian conservatives.
It was one of several checklist items that religious conservative leaders told Mr. Trump were important to them. And they reacted to his announcement with delight.
“Americans don’t need a federal tax agency to be the speech police of churches or any other nonprofit groups, who have a constitutionally protected freedom to decide for themselves what they want to say or not say,” said Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal defense group that has opposed the Johnson Amendment.
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian group, called Mr. Trump’s pledge “outstanding — right on target.”
“Pastors should be held accountable to God alone for what they say behind the pulpit, not the I.R.S.,” he said.
Many clergy members, however, say they see no reason to lift the prohibition, because making political endorsements could divide their congregations. They say the law in effect shields them from pressure by advocacy groups and politically active congregants to make endorsements.
“It would usher our partisan divisions into the pews,” said Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a group that advocates a strict separation of church and state.
Few Americans had even heard of the Johnson Amendment when Mr. Trump turned it into a rallying cry during the campaign. He told a crowd at the Iowa fairgrounds last August, “It denies your pastors their right to free speech, and has had a huge negative impact on religion.”
No one lobbied Mr. Trump to make the amendment an issue, said Johnnie Moore, a Christian publicist who serves on the president’s evangelical advisory board. He said Mr. Trump himself fixed on it in his first campaign meeting with the board members last June at Trump Tower.
Mr. Trump asked them why they did not have the courage to speak out more during elections. When the pastors informed him that they could lose their tax-exempt status, Mr. Trump declared the law unfair.
In meetings since then between Mr. Trump and pastors, whether in public or private, Mr. Moore said, Mr. Trump consistently says, “Everybody in this country has freedom of speech, except for you.”
Churches and clergy members are free to speak out on political and social issues — and many do — but the Johnson Amendment was intended to inhibit them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
Separately, the Free Speech Fairness Act was introduced in the House and the Senate on Wednesday. The bill would modify the Johnson Amendment by allowing churches and other charities to engage in political expression.
Source: New York Times