President Trump Expected to Make Tax Rules on Churches that Take Part in Politics More Lenient

President Trump plans to mark National Day of Prayer on Thursday by issuing an executive order that makes it easier for churches and other religious groups to actively participate in politics without risking their tax-exempt status, several administration officials said. 

Taking action as he hosts conservative religious leaders Thursday morning, Mr. Trump’s executive order would attempt to overcome a provision in the federal tax code that prohibits religious organizations like churches from directly opposing or supporting political candidates.

The move is likely to be hailed by some faith leaders, who have long complained that the law stifles their freedom of expression. But the order falls short of a more sweeping effort to protect religious liberties that has been pushed by conservative religious leaders since Mr. Trump’s election.

Many clergy members say they do not want to endorse political candidates from the pulpit because it could split their congregations and distract from their religious messages. This appears to be the case even among evangelicals, although it is Mr. Trump’s conservative evangelical advisers who encouraged him to address the issue.

It was unclear Wednesday whether Mr. Trump also planned to issue a separate order that would exempt some religious organizations like churches from Obama-era regulations requiring protections for gay men, lesbians and others.

A coalition of evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Mormons and Orthodox Jews has been eagerly awaiting a so-called religious liberty order, which they also hope will exempt religious entities from providing their employees with coverage for contraception in their health care plans.

Several conservative religious leaders said they expected Mr. Trump to issue such an order. But numerous White House aides declined to say whether the president planned to make such an announcement on Thursday alongside the executive order on political participation by churches.

Mr. Trump seized on the issue of limited political activism by religious leaders during the presidential campaign, winning cheers at rallies when he proclaimed that the tax code provision, known as the Johnson Amendment, denies pastors their right to free speech during elections.

“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,” Mr. Trump promised at the National Prayer Breakfast in early February, just days after taking office.

It is unclear exactly how the executive order will get around the tax code provision, since eliminating it would require legislation by Congress.

But faith leaders who have had discussions with White House officials about the issue said Mr. Trump could direct the Internal Revenue Service not to actively investigate or pursue cases of political activism by members of the clergy.

Such a directive might be quickly challenged in court. But in the meantime, pastors could feel freer to actively participate in coming elections without fear of being investigated and having their tax-exempt status revoked by the federal government.

“He could say something like, ‘I’m instructing the I.R.S. to respect the rights of religious institutions to participate in the public square fully,’ ” said Richard W. Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame and an expert in church/state issues.

“That might be symbolic,” he said, or it might in effect instruct the I.R.S. to “carve as wide a berth as possible” and allow churches and other houses of worship to participate openly in campaigns for political candidates without any repercussions.

Churches and clergy are free to speak out on political and social issues — and many do — but the Johnson Amendment served to inhibit them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.

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Source: The New York Times | MICHAEL D. SHEAR, LAURIE GOODSTEIN and MAGGIE HABERMAN