ST. GEORGE – President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday aimed at weakening federal enforcement preventing churches and religiously affiliated, tax-exempt groups from getting too political.
Trump marked the National Day of Prayer at the White House by signing the “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” asking the IRS to use “maximum enforcement discretion” over a rarely enforced regulation known as the Johnson Amendment.
“This financial threat against the faith community is over,” Trump said. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
While the executive order aims to weaken enforcement of the policy barring churches and tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates, it also promises “regulatory relief” for groups with religious objections to the preventive services requirement in the Affordable Care Act, according to a White House official.
Those requirements include covering birth control and could apply to religious groups that object to paying for contraception.
In Utah, where a majority of the elected legislators are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in an emailed statement Thursday that the church plans to remain politically neutral.
“We are always grateful for the efforts of leaders to safeguard religious freedom and protect the beliefs and religious exercise of all people,” Hawkins said in the email. “As an institution, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been and remains committed to political neutrality. Today’s executive order will not affect that longstanding policy.”
Under the church’s stance of neutrality, it does not endorse political candidates, parties or platforms, or tell church members who they should support or what their party affiliation should be.
Use of church facilities for partisan political purposes is also forbidden.
However, the church does encourage its members to be politically active in their communities and support whichever platforms or candidates they feel best represents them.
Like other religious institutions and affiliated groups, however, the church reserves “the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the church.”
Recent examples of this have been the church’s stances on pending votes regarding the legalization of recreational marijuana and assisted suicide in certain states last year.
However, the church’s influence, direct and otherwise, has also been felt in matters of Utah politics in regards to medicinal marijuana, LGBT equality and alcohol policy.
In an interview with Fox 13 news, Utah House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said he is worried the executive order is a step toward the integration of church and state. Like the majority of Utah lawmakers, King is also Mormon.
“I’ve got colleagues up here in the House of Representatives that believe there ought to be closer integration of church and state and when I say church, I mean LDS church here in the state of Utah,” he told Fox 13’s Ben Winslow. “I think that’s a problem. To the extent we go down that road, I think it’s unwise. I think it’s bad public policy.”
The amendment Trump’s executive order seemingly challenges, named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was put into force in 1954. The policy allows a wide range of advocacy on political issues, but in the case of houses of worship, it bars electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit.
The IRS does not make public its investigations of such cases, but only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status as a result of the prohibition.
The order did not match a broader, much more detailed draft leaked earlier this year that included provisions on conscience protection for faith-based ministries, schools and federal workers across an array of agencies.
Robin Fretwell Wilson, a legal scholar who advises legislators on balancing LGBT rights and religious liberty, told The Associated Press the language in the document was so vague, it was unclear what impact it would have.
That vaguery ultimately led to the American Civil Liberties Union dropping its original threat to sue Trump over the executive order.
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” said Anthony D. Romero, the ACLU’s executive director. “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process. The order portends but does not yet do harm to the provision of reproductive health services.”
The ACLU of Utah had its own thoughts on the executive order that were shared over Twitter.
— ACLU of Utah (@acluutah) May 4, 2017
While Trump’s action on the Johnson Amendment aims to please religious conservatives, not all of them are on board.
In a February survey of evangelical leaders conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents churches from about 40 denominations, 89 percent said pastors should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit. Nearly 100 clergy and faith leaders from across a range of denominations sent a letter last month to congressional leaders urging them to uphold the regulation. They said the IRS rule protects houses of worship and religious groups from political pressure.
Associated Press reporters CATHERINE LUCEY and RACHEL ZOLL contributed to this story.
- The LDS church’s policy of political neutrality
- Text: Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty
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