Trump Vows to ‘Destroy’ Law Banning Political Activity by Churches

By MARK LANDLER, nytimes

WASHINGTON — President Trump vowed Thursday to overturn a law restricting political speech by tax-exempt churches, a potentially huge victory for the religious right and a gesture to his political base.

Mr. Trump said his administration would “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from engaging in political activity at the risk of losing their tax-exempt status.

Repealing the law would require approval by Congress. Certain tax-exempt organizations — in this case, churches — are not allowed to openly endorse or campaign for political candidates. If they do, under existing law, they risk losing the benefits of their tax-exempt status.

Speaking to a gathering of religious leaders, the president also defended his immigration policy, brushed aside concern about his harsh phone calls with foreign leaders, and ridiculed Arnold Schwarzenegger for his poor ratings in replacing Mr. Trump as host of “Celebrity Apprentice.”

He did not mention an executive order on religious freedom, which critics said would restrict the rights of lesbians and gay men; a draft of the order has circulated, but administration officials have denied that it will be adopted.

In addressing the issue of churches and political speech, Mr. Trump said, “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.”

He added that “freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is under serious threat.”

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Trump promised to push for repeal of the law, which was passed in 1954 and named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas, who proposed the change to the tax code.

Mr. Trump also went off topic in his address to the National Prayer Breakfast. He told the audience not to worry about reports that he had held tempestuous phone calls with the leaders of allies Australia and Mexico, saying a tough approach was long overdue.

“When you hear about the tough phone calls, don’t worry,” he said. “We’re being taken advantage of by countries around the world. It’s time for us to be a little tough. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

Mr. Trump also needled Mr. Schwarzenegger, the former governor of California, for failing to maintain his ratings as the new host of “Celebrity Apprentice.” “We know how that turned out,” he said. “The ratings went down the tubes.”

“I want to just pray for Arnold, for those ratings,” he said.

The president spent much of his speech defending the visa ban on citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries, which caused chaos at airports and set off protests across the country.

“Terrorism is a fundamental threat to religious freedom,” he declared. “It must be stopped and it will be stopped.”

The president described “peace-loving Muslims” who had been killed by jihadi fighters aligned with the Islamic State, as well as a campaign of genocide against Christians in the Middle East. Extremists, he said, took advantage of the “generosity” of Americans to undermine the nation’s safety.

“My administration will do everything in its power to defend religious liberty,” he said. “We have to feel safe and secure.”

Mr. Trump talked about the influence of faith in his own life, referring to the family Bible, which was used when he took the oath of office at his inauguration. His mother, he said, read to him from that Bible during his childhood.

“America is a nation of believers,” he said. “The quality of our lives is not defined by our material success, but by our spiritual success.”

“I tell you that as someone who has had material success,” he added, before noting that many rich people are “very miserable, unhappy people.”

The breakfast featured the usual menu of homilies and testimonials to the power of faith. But the proceedings took a show-business turn when Mark Burnett, the Hollywood producer, stepped to the podium to introduce the president. Mr. Burnett recalled the influence Mr. Trump’s book, “The Art of the Deal,” had on him as a recently arrived immigrant. He later produced “Celebrity Apprentice” as a reality television vehicle for Mr. Trump.

The president led his remarks with an extended reminiscence about the show, recalling that he fired his agent after the agent rejected Mr. Burnett’s pitch for the program. “I actually got on the phone and fired him myself,” Mr. Trump said with a smile.


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