Trump likely to sign order on political limits for churches

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WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is likely to sign an executive order Thursday targeting a rarely enforced IRS rule that says religious organizations and other non-profits that endorse political candidates risk losing their tax-exempt status.

Two administration officials said Wednesday that Trump would likely sign an order including language on the rule, but stressed nothing was finalized. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss plans in advance.

Trump will mark the National Day of Prayer at the White House Thursday and was hosting members of his evangelical advisory board at a dinner Wednesday night. Changing the IRS rule is favored by some of the Christian conservatives who helped fuel his rise to the presidency.

The news was first reported by The New York Times.

Christian conservatives have been hoping to see a sweeping executive order covering the protections Trump has promised for those with religious objections to same-sex marriage and abortion, which critics say could sanction discrimination against LGBT people. It was not clear if the order would address those concerns.

Trump had 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. Abolishing the regulation would take an act of Congress, but Trump could direct the IRS not to enforce the prohibitions.

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.

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