Trump has long pledged to protect religious freedom. He promised to "totally destroy" the law prohibiting the political activities, known as the Johnson Amendment, when he spoke in February at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile Washington event with faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries. Fully abolishing the regulation would take an act of Congress, but Trump can direct the IRS not to enforce the prohibitions.
The White House official, who sought anonymity despite the president's criticism of anonymous sources, told reporters Wednesday night that the order will direct the IRS to use "maximum enforcement discretion" over the rule. The move is favored by some of the Christian conservatives who helped fuel his rise to the presidency.
The regulation, named for then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, was enacted in 1954 and prohibited partisan political activity for churches and other tax-exempt organizations. The policy still allows a wide range of advocacy on political issues, but in the case of houses of worship, bars electioneering and outright political endorsements from the pulpit. The rule has rarely been enforced.
The IRS does not make public its investigations in such cases, but only one church is known to have lost its tax-exempt status as a result of the prohibition. The Church at Pierce Creek in Conklin, New York, was penalized for taking out newspaper ads telling Christians they could not vote for Bill Clinton in the 1992 presidential election. Even so, some religious leaders have argued the rule has a chilling effect on free speech, and have advocated for years for repeal.
While Trump's action on the Johnson Amendment aims to please religious conservatives, some oppose any action that would weaken the policy.