Donald Trump is on the verge of signing an executive order that would allow pastors to promote political candidates from the pulpit without risking their churches’ tax exempt status, according to the New York Times.
This is essentially the repeal of the Johnson Amendment that church/state separation advocates have been fearing ever since Trump won the election.
Because a full repeal would require a change in the tax code — which means the GOP-led Congress would have to file and pass legislation, something they’ve had trouble doing since taking office in January — Trump’s executive order would likely just tell the IRS not to take action against pastors and their churches in the case of a political endorsement.
There were reports that Trump would “celebrate” the National Day of Prayer tomorrow by signing an executive order allowing faith-based discrimination against LGBT people at the federal level. That may still happen, but today’s revelation was not on anyone’s radar.
For all we know, the executive order may not change anything, since some pastors have been endorsing candidates as part of a Religious Right event called Pulpit Freedom Sunday and the IRS has not revoked any church’s tax exempt status (as far as we know).
But after atheists filed a lawsuit in 2012 over the department’s inaction, the IRS promised it would pursue legitimate cases from that point forward. The FFRF also had the right to sue again if they felt the IRS still wasn’t doing anything.
Trump now seems poised to give the IRS explicit permission to ignore that settlement.
He’s been talking about doing something like this ever since he began campaigning. The GOP’s 2016 Platform even included a passage urging the repeal of the Johnson Amendment. It said that stopping pastors from promoting candidates in church was a way of “policing or censoring speech based on religious convictions or beliefs.”
When Trump accepted his party’s nomination, he said he’d repeal the amendment because pastors were stifled in their free speech. When you consider how much political influences churches already have on political issues — by opposing marriage equality, abortion, sex education, etc. — it’s hard to make sense of that argument.
He reiterated those remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February, telling the crowd that he would “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”
This would be a huge gift for the Religious Right. It’s something they’ve been clamoring for years. We already know they don’t really care about “family values.” (Hell, they supported Donald Trump in overwhelming numbers this past November, despite all the ways he violated evangelical traditions.) Now they’d become a virtual wing of the GOP.
That’s why many pastors oppose this move. Imagine what churches would look like if they had to play politics in addition to everything else they do. What would a pastor’s work week look like if, in addition to meeting with and counseling parishioners, he had to consult with different candidates trying to obtain an endorsement?
Churches already don’t have to play by the same rules as other non-profits. They don’t have to be forthcoming about their finances, for example. And now Trump may be giving churches permission to tell members how to vote? It’s absurd.
Pastors have a choice: Their churches can pay taxes and endorse candidates, or they can have the perks of tax exemption in return for not playing politics. Every non-profit in the country plays by the same rules. Trump is now trying to change that.
It’s very likely it could lead to a lawsuit — but while that works its way through the courts, pastors would be free to tell their congregations they need to vote for a Republican candidate in whatever race is coming up.
Religion has always been about politics. Trump, by signing this order, would be making that bond explicit. At that point, don’t let anyone tell you religion transcends politics.
For what it’s worth, Interfaith Alliance President Rabbi Jack Moline has weighed in against such a move.
For decades, the Johnson Amendment has prevented houses of worship from being turned into partisan political tools. A majority of clergy — and Americans — support the status quo and oppose political endorsements from the pulpit.
President Trump’s executive order reportedly aims to gut the Johnson Amendment and clear the way for the Religious Right to weaponize their churches for partisan battle. If the effort succeeds, these churches would become conduits for unregulated ‘dark money’ in elections, with no restrictions or disclosure requirements.
Faith leaders are already free to address politics, they just can’t use tax-exempt dollars for partisan politics. This restriction applies to houses of worship, just as it does to other tax-deductible charities like the Boy Scouts and Red Cross.
To hear the Religious Right say it, clergy in America are being muzzled. But that’s a lie. Repealing the Johnson Amendment is nothing more than President Trump carrying water for the Religious Right.
The American Humanist Association released this statement:
… Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association, said, “When churches and other faith groups become embroiled in politics, our nation moves dangerously toward becoming a theocracy, not a democracy.”
More statements will be added to this post as they come in.
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