In an Aug. 22 court filing, the Department of Justice admitted that President Donald Trump’s May 4 “religious liberty” executive order didn’t really change the law relating to partisan political activity by houses of worship.
Trump has repeatedly vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, a 60-year-old federal law that protects the integrity of nonprofits, including houses of worship, by ensuring they don’t endorse or oppose candidates. In a July 12 interview with TV preacher Pat Robertson of the Christian Broadcasting Network, Trump claimed to have “gotten rid of” the Johnson Amendment.
That claim warranted a “mostly false” label from the fact-checking site PolitiFact because it would take an act of Congress to change the law, and Trump’s executive order that referenced the Johnson Amendment didn’t do much other than signal forthcoming attacks against it.
Trump’s own Justice Department affirmed the executive order’s ineffectiveness when it filed a motion asking a court to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The department admits that the Internal Revenue Service must treat houses of worship and secular nonprofits the same when enforcing the Johnson Amendment.
“The Order does not exempt religious organizations from the restrictions on political campaign activity applicable to all tax-exempt organizations,” Justice Department attorneys wrote. “Rather, the Order directs the Government not to take adverse action against religious organizations that it would not take against other organizations in the enforcement of these restrictions.”
The conservative legal group the Becket Fund also filed a brief in the case, misstating the Johnson Amendment’s impact on faith leaders’ ability to speak on political issues.
On Aug. 16, Americans United assisted in delivering to Congress letters signed by more than 4,000 faith leaders nationwide who support the Johnson Amendment and believe the current law “strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against.”