The document’s key goal is a vow to ease restrictions imposed by the Johnson Amendment, the rule limiting political participation by tax-exempt religious groups.
Before signing the order, Trump signaled that there was more to this than eliminating what he called “this financial threat against the faith community.” He revealed he was directing the Justice Department to “develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans.”
“The federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs,” Trump said. The president said he was taking action to protect liberties “given to us not by any earthly power but by our creator in heaven.”
“Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation,” Trump told supporters gathered in the Rose Garden on Thursday. “We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore.”
By signing this order on the National Day of Prayer, he fulfilled a key campaign promise he made to a crowd of religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast in February: “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.” The Johnson amendment, originally a part of the Internal Revenue Code of 1954, prevents all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from advocating for political candidates.
Trump said the federal government has “used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith.”
But changing the Internal Revenue Code requires an act of Congress. However, Trump can influence how it is enforced. ABC News reported that according to sources, the order instructs the Treasury Department not to target the tax-exempt status of churches and other institutions for supporting political candidates.
Supporters of the Johnson Amendment claim that organizations that are exempt from paying taxes to the federal government should not directly engage with those in political office who can act to increase or decrease their benefits. Those opposed claim the amendment violates the First Amendment’s freedom of speech protections.
Before the signing, Trump also announced that his first foreign visits as president would be to Saudi Arabia, Israel and The Vatican, and promising to work with Muslim leaders to combat “extremism, terrorism and violence.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: This report has been updated to include reaction from a variety of LGBTQ groups.