President Donald Trump, strongly backed by Evangelical Christian voters, has promised to “totally destroy’’ a 1954 U.S. law barring religious organisations from partaking, whether directly or indirectly, in politics, if they wanted to keep tax-exempt status.
He made his comments about a measure called the Johnson Amendment during remarks at the annual National Prayer Breakfast.
“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 an audience including politicians, religious leaders and guests such as Jordan’s King Abdullah.
The Johnson Amendment prohibits tax-exempt organisations such as churches, charities and educational institutions from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign in favour of or against a political candidate.
It is named after Democratic former President Lyndon Johnson and is an important statutory barrier between politics and religion.
Trump previously spoke out against the 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.
After Trump’s remarks, Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters he had “always supported’’ eliminating the Johnson Amendment.
Critics including the group, Americans United for Separation of Church and Stateexpressed, alarm.
“President Donald Trump and his allies in the religious right seek to turn America’s houses of worship into miniature political action committees. 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,’’ said the group’s executive director, Barry Lynn.
Scrapping the Johnson Amendment has been a goal of Christian conservatives, who contend it violates free speech and religious freedom rights.
The U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion and bars the government from establishing an official religion.
A Trump executive order a week ago put a 120-day halt on the U.S. refugee programme, barred Syrian refugees indefinitely and imposed a 90-day suspension on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
Trump defended his directive as crucial to ensuring religious freedom and tolerance in America, and said he wanted to prevent a “beachhead of intolerance’’ from spreading in the U.S.
He also called terrorism a fundamental threat to religious freedom.
“The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out. OK? That’s what I do, I fix things,’’ Trump said.