During a May 4 ceremony at the White House on the National Day of Prayer, President Donald Trump signed the Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty.
The order directed all executive departments and agencies “to protect the freedom of persons and organizations to engage in religious and political speech.” Trump also directed the Treasury Department not to take adverse action, including tax penalties, against religious individuals or institutions when they speak out on moral and political matters.
The executive order was in response to the Johnson Amendment. Devised in 1954 by Lyndon Johnson when he was in the U.S. Senate, the law prohibits religious organizations from directly or indirectly participating in political campaigns. The penalty for such activity is the loss of an organization’s tax exempt status.
Trump framed the executive order as the fulfillment of a promise he had made multiple times when he ran for president.
“You have so much to contribute to our politics, yet our laws prevent you from speaking your minds from your own pulpits,” said Trump at Republican National Convention in July of 2016. “This financial threat against the faith community is over,” he said at the signing ceremony.
But critics argue that the federal government rarely goes after religious organizations or individuals for alleged violations. During his campaign for president, multiple religious leaders, including Jerry Falwell, Jr., endorsed and supported his candidacy.
In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] said that Trump’s executive order merely follows the status quo and that it doesn’t see the need to file a lawsuit at this time.
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome. After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “President Trump’s prior assertion that he wished to ‘totally destroy’ the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of ‘fake news.’”