Trump signs ‘religious liberty’ executive order allowing for broad exemptions

Ali Vitali
President Donald Trump signs an executive order in the Rose Garden of the of the White House in Washington, Thursday, May 4, 2017, asking the IRS to use "maximum enforcement discretion" over the regulation, known as Johnson Amendment, which applies to churches and nonprofits.
Evan Vucci | AP

President Donald Trump on Thursday made good on a promise to allow religious organizations greater freedom in political speech.

"Faith is deeply embedded into the history of our country, the spirit of our founding and the soul of our nation," Trump said in the Rose Garden at a National Day of Prayer event with religious leaders and White House staff. "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore."

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He declared his administration would be "leading by example" on religious liberty in the United States.

"We are giving our churches their voices back," Trump said.

Religious leaders prayed in the garden just before the executive order was signed. When Trump joined them, he celebrated the religious gathering at the heart of the White House.

After a campaign full of promises to dismantle the Johnson Amendment, which bans tax-exempt organizations like churches from political speech, the executive order relaxes IRS enforcement of the rule. While the executive order signals a promise kept, the amendment would require Congressional action to repeal it fully.

Thursday's executive order, called "Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty," also gives relief to companies that object to an Obamacare mandate for contraception in health care. The caveat builds on the 2014 Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, which found that the Affordable Care Act mandate that closely held corporations must provide female employees with no-cost access to contraception was a violation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

While an earlier draft of the religious liberty order would have let federal contractors discriminate against LGBT employees based on faith beliefs, Thursday's version did not include such provisions.

Instead, it was meant to declare "that it is the policy of the administration to protect and vigorously promote religious liberty."

Pastor Mark Burns, a longtime Trump supporter who attended the White House signing and a White House dinner for religious leaders Wednesday evening, celebrated the move, telling NBC News Thursday morning that it was a "great day for religious freedom in America."