(CNSNews.com) - President Donald Trump marked the National Day of Prayer on Thursday by signing an executive order repealing the Johnson Amendment, which targets religious leaders who engage in political speech by threatening their tax-exempt status.
“For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith - bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs,” the president said.
“That is why I am signing today an executive order to defend the freedom of religion and speech in America, the freedoms that we’ve wanted, the freedoms that you fought for so long,” Trump said. “No American should be forced to choose between the dictates of the federal government and the tenets of their faith.”
Trump said he heard from faith leaders across the country while he was campaigning who were “prevented from speaking their minds because of a 1954 rule known as the Johnson Amendment.”
“Under this rule, if a pastor or priest or imam speaks about issues of public or political importance, they are threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status - a crippling financial punishment, very, very unfair, but no longer. I promised to take action if I won,” he said.
“This executive order directs the IRS not to unfairly target churches and religious organizations for political speech. No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors,” Trump said.
“In America, we do not fear people speaking freely from the pulpit. We embrace it. America has a rich tradition of social change beginning in our pews and our pulpits,” he said.
“Perhaps there is no greater example of the African-American church as the agent for social progress, spurring our nation to greater justice and equality. We must never infringe on the noble tradition of change from the church and progress from the pew,” the president said.
“Under my administration, free speech does not end at the steps of a cathedral or a synagogue or any other house of worship. We are giving our churches their voices back,” he said.
“With this executive order, we also make clear that the federal government will never ever penalize any person for their protected religious beliefs,” Trump said. “That is why I am today directing the Department of Justice to develop new rules to ensure these religious protections are afforded to all Americans.”
The executive order also directs the Department of Health and Human Services to amend Obamacare regulations that force “people of faith” to pay for birth control.
The president pointed to the plight of the Little Sisters of the Poor, who challenged the Obamacare contraceptive mandate, requiring employers to provide health care coverage of abortion-inducing drugs, and won.
“We know all too well the attacks against the Little Sisters of the Poor - incredible nuns who care for the sick, the elderly and the forgotten,” he said, adding that their “long ordeal will soon be over.”
“With this executive order, we are ending the attacks on your religious liberty, and we are proudly reaffirming America’s leadership role as a nation that protects religious freedom for everyone,” Trump said.
“Over 60 years ago, the IRS went after one of the greatest leaders in history - Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a sobering reminder of the need for vigilance. The words of Reverend King and other religious leaders have awakened the conscience of millions and millions of Americans and inspired us to act in the name of peace, justice, freedom and charity,” he said. “Every president must work to protect … these hard-fought gains.”
He also announced that his first foreign trip as president will be to Saudi Arabia, followed by Israel and then to the Vatican in Rome. The trip will take place ahead of the NATO G-7 meetings.
“Saudi Arabia is the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, and it is there that we will begin to construct a new foundation of cooperation and support with our Muslim allies to combat extremism, terrorism, and violence and to embrace a more just and hopeful future for young Muslims in their countries,” Trump said.
“Our task is not to dictate to others how to live but to build a coalition of friends and partners who share the goal of fighting terrorism and bringing safety, opportunity, and stability to the war-ravaged Middle East,” he said.