By Hemant Mehta
Back in May, Donald Trump signed an executive order supposedly weakening the Johnson Amendment. That’s the rule the forbids non-profit groups from endorsing candidates if they want to keep their tax exemptions. Which also means pastors can’t tell their congregations how to vote.
Trump said on the campaign trail he would eliminate the rule, which would, in effect, turn a lot of churches into nothing more than branches of the Republican Party.
This was Trump’s attempt to make it happen… but he didn’t have the power to repeal it by himself so the executive order lacked any real bite. It told the IRS to “not take any adverse action” against churches whose pastors played politics from the pulpit, but the reality was that the IRS wasn’t doing that to begin with. For reasons that included higher priorities elsewhere and an already overextended staff, they hadn’t revoked any tax exemptions even when pastors begged them to do it (so that they could sue the IRS and overturn the Johnson Amendment through the courts).
Trump’s order mostly formalized the IRS’ inaction. From a practical standpoint, it didn’t change much. But the wording was still a serious problem because Trump was telling the IRS not to enforce the law. He sent the message to churches that endorsing candidates from the pulpit was perfectly fine, and that they should go ahead and do it if they wanted to. They wouldn’t suffer any consequences.
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