President Donald Trump signed an executive order Thursday that allows churches and other religious organizations to become more active politically, according to officials.
The order directs the IRS to exercise "maximum enforcement discretion" over the Johnson amendment, which prevents churches and other tax-exempt religious organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. It also provides "regulatory relief" for organizations that object on religious grounds to a provision in Obamacare that mandates employers provide certain health services, including coverage for contraception.
The order declares the policy of the Trump administration is "to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty," according to a senior administration official.
Trump signed the order and delivered remarks during a White House event marking the National Day of Prayer alongside national religious leaders.
The order stops short of offering broad exceptions for groups to deny services based on religious grounds.
An earlier version of the order, which had previously leaked to The Nation, would have provided sweeping legal protections for people to claim religious exemptions, provisions that civil liberties groups claimed would allow for discrimination against LGBT Americans.
The actual order Trump signed is more modest in scope. By directing the IRS to use its discretion in enforcing the Johnson Amendment, religious organizations are likely to escape punishment for backing political candidates. Religious leaders have argued the provision stifles their rights to free speech.
The 1954 Johnson amendment says any tax-exempt group can lose its exemption if it is found to have endorsed or actively opposed a candidate for political office. The IRS is officially tasked with investigating suspected violators of the law, though only one organization has lost its exemption as a result of IRS action.
Trump himself vowed early in his presidential tenure to get rid of the measure, though completely striking the amendment would require an act of Congress.
"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," Trump said in February.
Some religious leaders, however, object to any measure that would make it easier to inject politics into places of worship.
"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," Interfaith Alliance president Rabbi Jack Moline said. "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," he said.
In a letter delivered to House and Senate leaders last month, a group of religious leaders argued against scrapping the Johnson Amendment, citing similar concerns that such a move could turn religious groups into political organizations.
"The charitable sector, particularly houses of worship, should not become another cog in a political machine or another loophole in campaign finance laws," the group wrote.
Briefing reporters Wednesday evening, a senior Trump administration official downplayed the possibility that churches would soon act as political groups advocating for particular candidates.
"Nobody is suggesting that churches are allowed, or it's legal, for tax-exempt organizations to tax out ads endorsing candidates," the official said. "That's illegal now for them, as a condition of their tax-exempt status. So we're not changing what's legal, we're not changing what's illegal, just enforcement discretion."
Selectively enforcing law has drawn scrutiny in past administrations, and could present another legal challenge to Trump's administration. Several of Trump's executive orders -- including an entry ban for citizens of certain Muslim-majority nations, and an order stripping federal funding from so-called "sanctuary cities" -- are on hold are courts weigh their legality.
The senior administration official downplayed any fears the religious order could face a similar fate.
"I don't think that we expect any legal challenges," the official said.