(WASHINGTON) President Donald Trump on Thursday vowed to free churches and other tax-exempt institutions of a 1954 U.S. law banning political activity, drawing fire from critics who accused him of rewarding his evangelical Christian supporters and turning houses of worship into political machines.
- Donald Trump used a prayer breakfast to take aim at a long-standing statutory barrier between politics and religion called the Johnson Amendment
- Opposing civil liberties and gay rights groups expressed concern that he might consider an executive order to allow government agencies and businesses to deny services to gay people in the name of religious freedom.
- Trump did not reference such an order in his remarks.
- He lambasted the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations such as churches and other places of worship, charities and educational institutions from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign in favor or against a political candidate.
"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. I will do that, remember," Trump told U.S. politicians, religious leaders and guests including Jordan's King Abdullah at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Trump wanted to find ways to make sure people were not penalized for following through on their religious beliefs.
A draft executive order on "religious freedom" circulating among advocacy groups would allow government officials to deny marriage licenses to gay couples and let businesses withhold services from gay people, activists said.
The White House said it was not working on such an order.
Trump previously spoke out against the Johnson amendment during the campaign and won the support of evangelical Christian leaders including Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr.
A change in the law would require action in the Republican-led U.S. Congress, and Republican lawmakers introduced legislation that would reverse the policy.
After Trump's remarks, Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters he has "always supported" eliminating the Johnson Amendment.
Critics including the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State expressed alarm.
"President Donald Trump and his allies in the religious right seek to turn America's houses of worship into miniature political action committees," said the group's executive director, Barry Lynn.
"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 said.