WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump used the occasion of National Prayer Day on Thursday to sign an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty” that would allow religious leaders and groups to engage in political activity and speech without fear of repercussion.
“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore, and we will never, never stand for religious discrimination … never, ever,” he said. “Tolerance is the cornerstone of peace.”
Trump welcomed religious leaders of different faiths in the Rose Garden of the White House to mark the occasion.
“I am signing an executive order to defend the freedom of religion and speech in America – the freedoms that we wanted, the freedoms that you fought so hard for.”
The 1954 Johnson Amendment prohibits religious leaders and groups from speaking about or engaging in political issues. Violations can result in a religious organization losing its tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service.
“No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of America or the tenets of their faith,” the president said.
Trump said he was signing the controversial order “to prevent the Johnson Amendment from interfering with their First Amendment Rights.”
He is directing the IRS to not target religious leaders, he said. “No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
“We are giving our churches their voices back.”
The president vowed that “the federal government will never, never penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs.”
“We are proudly reaffirming this country’s role as a nation of religious freedom.”
He mentioned that the IRS had targeted Martin Luther King Jr. more than 50 years ago. The IRS audited the civil rights leader, at the direction of the FBI, several times during the 1950s and 1960s before he was assassinated in 1968.
Trump urged Americans “to protect the sacred liberties given to us not by any earthly power but by our creator in Heaven.”
He signed the executive order as the religious leaders looked on.
Many people had feared that the executive order would allow religious groups to discriminate against the LGBT community. The ACLU said Tuesday that it would sue Trump if his executive order condoned discrimination against women or LGBT people. But the executive order does not appear to extend religious freedom to such an extent that it would permit discrimination.