Debate over Taxing Churches Reignites with Trump Executive Order

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President Trump at Signing Ceremony for Religious Liberty Executive Order
Source: whitehouse.gov (accessed May 19, 2017)

On May 4, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order entitled “Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.” The order dealt in part with churches and taxes, and the current IRS regulations that prohibit churches from engaging in political speech in order to remain tax-exempt.

Under a 1954 Congressional amendment to the IRS code known as the Johnson Amendment, churches and religious organizations with tax-exempt status are prohibited from engaging in political speech. The amendment states that churches and all other 501(c)(3) charities are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status under this law.

President Trump’s executive order took aim at the Johnson Amendment by seeking to loosen that restriction. The order directed the US Secretary of the Treasurey to ensure that the “Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”

The same day Trump signed the order, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sued the President. According to the FFRF, “Trump’s order and statements signal to the Internal Revenue Service that it should not enforce the electioneering restrictions of the tax code against churches and religious organizations… FFRF asserts the president has no constitutional authority to selectively veto a legitimate statute that Congress passed and a president signed into law more than 50 years ago.”

Some opponents of the Johnson Amendment felt that President Trump’s executive order did not go far enough. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said he wanted to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment. According to David French, Senior Fellow at the National Review Institute, Trump’s executive order was “dangerous nothingness” and that the only answer to the Johnson Amendment “is to either repeal the statute or overturn it in court.” Michael Farris, president of Alliance Defending Freedom, stated on the day of signing that, “Though we appreciate the spirit of today’s gesture, vague instructions to federal agencies simply leaves them wiggle room to ignore that gesture, regardless of the spirit in which it was intended.”

Supporters of the Johnson Amendment, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), agreed that Trump’s executive order would not allow churches to engage in political activity and remain tax-exempt. According to Anthony Romero, Executive Director of the ACLU, Trump’s “executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. 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.”


Sources:

Ralph Benko, “Trump’s Promise to Totally Destroy the ‘Johnson Amendment’ Is a Good One,” forbes.com, Mar. 20, 2017

Freedom from Religion Foundation, “FFRF Sues Trump over Church Politicking,” ffrf.org, May 4, 2017

David French, “Freedom Must Be Written into the Law, Not Wish-Cast through Commands That a Later President Can Reverse,” nationalreview.com, May 4, 2017

Laurie Goodstein and Michael D. Shear, “Trump’s Order on Religious Liberty Pleases a Few, but Lets Down Many Conservatives,” nytimes.com, May 4, 2017

David Jackson and Maureen Groppe, “Religious Conservatives Mixed on Trump’s Order Targeting Birth Control, Church Involvement in Politics,” usatoday.com, May 4, 2017

Gregory Korte and Fredreka Schouten, “Trump’s Religious Freedom Order Doesn’t Change Law on Political Activity,” usatoday.com, May 4, 2017

Mark Landler and Laurie Goodstein, “Trump Vows to ‘Destroy’ Law Banning Political Endorsements by Churches,” nytimes.com, Feb. 2, 2017

White House Office of the Press Secretary, “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty,” whitehouse.gov, May 4, 2017