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Trump’s Bait-and-Switch on Religion

May 4, 2017

Trump Administration’s Bait-and-Switch on Religion

Executive Order Backs Off Threat to Allow Churches to Engage in Politics
and Highlights the Need for Real Bright Line Reform

WASHINGTON, D.C. – President Donald Trump’s threats to issue an executive order opening the floodgates on politicking in the guise of religion turned out to be more hot air from the White House, Public Citizen said today.

Trump had promised an executive order to gut a federal law prohibiting churches from intervening in elections. But the order, released with much fanfare at a Rose Garden ceremony commemorating the National Day of Prayer, oddly instructs the IRS to keep enforcing the law as written, even while the administration continues to signal that it doesn’t like the law and doesn’t really want it enforced. The president’s rhetoric encourages religious groups to funnel more dark money into politics even as his order leaves in place a status quo in which the rules are underenforced and not defined clearly enough.

“We were fully prepared to sue if the president carried through on his promise to gut the law and allow our churches and charities to be turned into conduits for political spending,” said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “Thankfully, Trump’s order doesn’t do that, but his reckless statements likely will encourage the illegal funneling of dark money through religious institutions and ostensibly religious nonprofits.”

The law in question, known as the Johnson Amendment after its sponsor, then-U.S. Senator Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), was enacted in 1954. It prohibits charitable groups that claim tax-exemption under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code – including churches – from participating or intervening in election campaigns. Although a small but vocal minority of  churches have chafed at the restriction, most endorse the concept of separating religion from politics and preventing tax-deductible charitable donations from being used to funnel dark money into our political system.

Shortly after he took office, Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” and in his Rose Garden comments today he claimed that “this financial threat against the faith community is over.” But the order he signed today says only that the freedom of speech and religion should be respected and that the IRS shouldn’t enforce the Johnson Amendment against speech that has not “ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign.” Of course, the existing ban on campaign intervention isn’t enforced against speech that does not meet the ordinary tests for campaign intervention. In other words, the order does nothing to change existing IRS practices.

Unfortunately, existing practices do require reform, because the prohibition on political intervention by nonprofits has long been underenforced by the IRS even in the face of blatant violations, and because the lines defining campaign intervention should be clearer and brighter.

For these reasons, Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project has been working for nearly a decade to create clear, fair rules for nonprofits that make nonpartisan civic engagement easier for nonprofits while preventing abuses of the system. Our proposal, made up of easy-to-follow rules and safe harbors to protect freedom of speech, is one way to ensure that a properly enforced law would still protect nonpartisanship and allow civic participation by all nonprofits.

“Nonprofits including 501(c)(3)s should be given the tools they need for nonpartisan civic engagement,” said Emily Peterson-Cassin, coordinator for Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project. “Rules that are easy to follow and enforce are needed here, not more bluster.”