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President Trump pledges to end political limits on churches

India TV News Desk Washington 03 Feb 2017, 7:55:14 IST
India TV News Desk

Declaring that religious freedom is ‘under threat’, President Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to free churches and other tax-exempt institutions of a 1954 law banning political activity.

"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," Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast, a high-profile event bringing together faith leaders, politicians and dignitaries.

Trump's pledge was a nod to his evangelical Christian supporters, who helped power his White House win. So far he has not detailed his plans for doing away with the rule, which he has previously promised to rescind. 

Named after then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, the regulation has been in place since 1954 for tax-exempt charities, including churches, though it is very rare for a church to actually be penalized.

Abolishing the amendment will require action by the Congress, though Trump can direct the IRS to disregard the rule. The tax code does allow a wide range of political activity by houses of worship, including speaking out on social issues and organizing congregants to vote. But churches cannot endorse a candidate or engage in partisan advocacy.

After Trump's remarks, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that he has ‘always supported eliminating the Johnson Amendment’.

The announcement also invited ire from critics who accused the President of rewarding his evangelical Christian supporters and turning houses of worship into political machines.

"President Donald Trump and his allies in the religious right seek to turn America's houses of worship into miniature political action committees," Barry Lynn, executive director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said.

"It would also lead some houses of worship to focus on supporting candidates in exchange for financial and other aid. That would be a disaster for both churches and politics in America," Lynn added.

The Associated Press, citing a poll by Lifeway Research, reported that repeal does not appear to have widespread public support. Eight in 10 Americans said that it was inappropriate for pastors to endorse a candidate in church.