Trump Is Expected to Relax Tax Rules on Churches Taking Part in Politics

In Conflict of Interest, Taxes On
- Updated

WASHINGTON — President Trump plans to mark the 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.

White House officials said Mr. Trump will direct the Internal Revenue Service to exercise “maximum enforcement discretion” in a way that would ensure that most religious organizations are not subject to punishment for expressing their political views.

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 is expected to fall short of a more sweeping effort to protect religious liberties that has been pushed by conservative religious leaders since Mr. Trump’s election.

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Trump’s Order on Religious Liberty Pleases Some, but Lets Down Conservatives

WASHINGTON — President Trump signed his long-awaited executive order on religious liberty Thursday with a full-throated reassurance that he would protect the freedom of American believers. But the reactions of religious leaders across the country suggested that it instead promised freedoms many of them did not want — and failed to deliver concrete legal protections that conservatives had been led to expect.

The centerpiece of the order is a pledge to allow clergy members and houses of worship to endorse political candidates from the pulpit, fulfilling a campaign promise that Mr. Trump repeatedly used to rally his most fervent supporters. Public opinion polls show, however, that neither the American public as a whole nor religious leaders in particular — even evangelicals, who voted for Mr. Trump in droves — think that partisan politicking by churches is a good idea.

“I don’t actually know anybody who has endorsed or who wants to endorse a politician from the pulpit,” said Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, an umbrella group representing about 40 denominations and 45,000 churches. “My idea is that church is about teaching the Bible, it’s about discipleship and evangelism. It’s not about politics.”

The order was also a stinging disappointment for conservative religious leaders who had expected that it would exempt their organizations from Obama-era regulations aimed at protecting gay people from discrimination.

The executive order does not mention anything about relief for religious groups and charities that object to serving or hiring gay, bisexual or transgender people, and that were looking to Mr. Trump for legal cover.

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Clerical Speech Isn’t Persecuted

Mr. Trump’s toothless action is the inevitable consequence of years spent scaring white evangelicals with faux outrages. A problem with no victims requires nothing more than a solution with no substance. All Mr. Trump had to do was host some religious leaders in his garden, listen politely to some Christian contemporary music, repeat some religious-right talking points about how “free speech” doesn’t “end at the steps of a cathedral” and voilà! He becomes the savior of American Christianity.

It was fitting that the ceremony took place on the National Day of Prayer, which became another fake controversy during Mr. Obama’s presidency. Every year Fox News hosts would blast Mr. Obama for “canceling” the Day of Prayer. In fact, ever since Harry Truman designated the first National Day of Prayer, every president has acknowledged it as Mr. Obama did — by issuing a proclamation. Only George W. Bush broke with tradition by hosting an annual event that functioned as an opportunity to tend to his religious base.

More than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in November, making them the most Republican demographic in the election. That could make them indispensable to the White House — or it could mean their support can be taken for granted.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for their own tax-exempt right to endorse candidates, for theirs is a seat in the Rose Garden.

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