Trump vows to end prohibition on church political activity

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By Jeff Mason and Roberta Rampton | WASHINGTON

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.

Speaking to U.S. politicians, religious leaders and guests
such as Jordan’s King Abdullah at the annual National Prayer
Breakfast, Trump used the opening moments of the usually solemn
affair to deride actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, his successor on a
reality TV show, for his viewership ratings. He also said almost
every other country was taking advantage of the United States.

Trump took aim at a long-standing statutory barrier between
politics and religion called the Johnson Amendment. It 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
said.

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, and Republican lawmakers on
Wednesday 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.

Peter Montgomery of the liberal advocacy group People For
the American Way said Trump wants to pay back religious
conservatives who helped get him elected “by letting them turn
their churches into political machines with tax-exempt
charitable dollars.”

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.

“We are encouraged to see that President Trump understands
the very real constitutional violation posed by the Johnson
Amendment and that he is committed to restoring a pastor’s right
to speak freely from the pulpit without fearing government
retribution,” said Erik Stanley, senior counsel for the
conservative Christian legal group Alliance Defending Freedom.

‘PRAY FOR ARNOLD’

Trump said Schwarzenegger, the Republican former governor of
California, had disastrous ratings on the NBC reality TV program “Celebrity Apprentice,” which Trump previously starred in.

“They hired a big, big movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, to
take my place. And we know how that turned out,” Trump said. “It’s been a total disaster. … And I want to just pray for
Arnold if we can, for those ratings, OK?”

Schwarzenegger, who endorsed Ohio Governor John Kasich over
Trump for the Republican presidential nomination, shot back,
alluding to the controversies of Trump’s first two weeks in
office.

“Hey Donald, I have a great idea,” Schwarzenegger said in a
video. “Why don’t we switch jobs? You take over TV, because
you’re such an expert in ratings, and I take over your job. And
then people can finally sleep comfortably again.”

White House spokesman Sean Spicer later called Trump’s
remarks “light-hearted” and part of an “absolutely beautiful”
speech.

Trump a week ago put a 120-day halt on the U.S. refugee
program, 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 on Thursday as crucial to
ensuring religious freedom and tolerance in America, and said he
wanted to prevent a “beachhead of intolerance” from spreading in
the United States. 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.

“When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t
worry about it,” Trump added, apparently referring to telephone
conversations including one with Australian Prime Minister
Malcolm Turnbull.

“It’s time we’re going to be a little tough folks. We’re
taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It’s
not going to happen anymore,” Trump said.



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