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06 May 2017, 02:03 | Dan Bryan
"Anything that would now be illegal under current law would still be illegal, we're not changing the law", a senior White House official said on the eve of Trump signing the executive order in the presence of a group of religious leaders. The amendment bans tax-exempt organizations like churches and other religious institutions from political speech and activities.
A current provision in the U.S. federal tax code, known as the Johnson Amendment, says that churches can be investigated and lose their tax-exempt status if they directly support or oppose any political candidate.
The new executive order also instructs the Departments of Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services to consider amending regulations in the Affordable Care Act, popularly known as Obamacare, which require employers to cover contraception in employee insurance plans.
The American Civil Liberties Union immediately vowed to sue over the executive order, which ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero described as "a broadside to our country's long-standing commitment to the separation of church and state".
"Free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue, or any other house of worship", the president said. But President Trump has been a vocal opponent of it, claiming that he would "totally destroy" the Johnson Amendment and "allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution".
"We are giving our churches their voices back", said Trump, who signed the order on what he declared a National Day of Prayer.
Tony Perkins, head of the conservative Family Research Council, which has advocated for a repeal of the IRS restrictions on political speech, said Trump has started "a multi-phase process" on religious liberty that will "keep the promises the administration has made to people of faith". The executive order builds on the exemptions provided by the Supreme Court's ruling in the controversial 2014 Hobby Lobby case.
It also instructs the IRS to allow active churches across the USA to endorse political candidates. "We embrace it. America has a rich tradition of social change beginning in our pews and our pulpits", he said.
"We will be taking action in short order to follow the president's instruction to safeguard the deeply held religious beliefs of Americans who provide health insurance to their employees", Price said.
Baird, who endorsed then-Republican candidate Mitt Romney and quoted 2 Chronicles 7:14 in his Pulpit Freedom Sunday sermon, said he sees Trump's executive order as good optics on religious freedom, but he doesn't think it goes far enough.
President Trump drew upon the nation's religious history in promoting the executive order. And we will never, ever stand for religious discrimination.
But many critics of the Johnson Amendment say the law's true power is as a deterrent.
Mark Silk, a professor at Trinity College in CT who writes on religious freedom, called the actions described by the White House "very weak tea", especially compared to the draft religious freedom executive order that was leaked earlier this year, That document contained sweeping provisions on conscience protection for faith-based ministries, schools and federal workers across an array of agencies. "We need some laws today to protect the First Amendment".
The move by Trump, who appealed to religious conservatives in his 2016 presidential run, was widely praised by religious organizations that either felt hemmed in by the law or openly violated it.
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