The order, Trump said, removes the financial threat faced by tax-exempt churches from the Internal Revenue Service when pastors speak out on behalf of political candidates. But some experts said it amounts to a mostly symbolic gesture with little likelihood of changing how the agency polices the issue.
Trump’s order — unveiled on a National Day of Prayer celebrated with religious leaders — also directs his administration to consider developing regulations related to religious objectors to an Obama administration mandate, scaled back by the courts, that required contraception services as part of health plans.
“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,” Trump said, later telling those gathered for the event that “you’re now in a position to say what you want to say . . . No one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”
The sweep of the order was considerably narrower than a leaked February draft, which alarmed civil libertarians and gay rights and other liberal advocacy groups.
Among other things, that version included a provision that could have allowed federal contractors to discriminate against LGBT employees or single mothers on the basis of faith.
The order released Thursday instead included a blanket statement that “it shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” Trump said he would direct the Justice Department to develop rules to guide that process.
Gregory S. Baylor, senior counsel for the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom, was among the Christian conservatives to criticize the order, calling it “disappointingly vague” and questioning whether the IRS would follow through with Trump’s directive.
“We strongly encourage the president to see his campaign promise through to completion,” Baylor said.
Even the scaled-back version prompted threats of lawsuits, although some groups said that after reviewing the order they would hold fire on any legal action, arguing that it will have little impact.
“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a statement. “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”
As a candidate and shortly after taking office, Trump declared that he would “totally destroy” what is known as the Johnson Amendment, the long-standing ban on churches and other tax-exempt organizations supporting political candidates.
The provision applies to all tax-exempt organizations, including many colleges and foundations. But Christian groups have complained most vociferously about its use.
The provision is written in the tax code and would require an act of Congress to repeal fully. An administration official said Trump was instead directing the IRS to “exercise maximum enforcement discretion of the prohibition.”
The language in the order is less robust: It merely instructs the administration not to take “adverse action” against churches or religious figures for political speech that has “not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign” for or against a candidate for office.
Rabbi David Saperstein, former ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, said that as crafted, Trump’s order isn’t likely to make a significant difference in enforcement practices.
“People committed to the Johnson Amendment will be troubled he’s continuing down a path toward changing existing law,” Saperstein said. “Those who are advocating for a significant change are going to be disappointed.”
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition and a leading advocate of repealing the prohibition, called Trump’s order a good first step, saying that it removed “a sword of Damocles that has hung over the faith community for decades.” But he added that his group would still like to see congressional action.
Violations of the Johnson Amendment are infrequently pursued by the IRS, but evangelicals say it has been used selectively against them, preventing Christian leaders from speaking freely in church.
The amendment is named for Lyndon B. Johnson, who introduced it in the Senate in 1954, nine years before he became president.
Under current law, churches are free to promote political candidates but must forgo such activity to obtain tax-exempt status.
The repeal of the Johnson Amendment is also being written into the tax legislation being developed in the House of Representatives, according to congressional aides. But both the provision and the broader legislation face substantial hurdles.
In a letter Wednesday to Republican leaders of Congress, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and other Democrats expressed concern that repealing the amendment would allow tax-exempt churches and other nonprofits to be used to skirt campaign finance laws.
"Using charitable causes as shell companies to evade campaign finance transparency and contribution limits would increase the flow of dark money in politics," the letter said.
How far-reaching the order should be has been the subject of internal White House debate for weeks, with Vice President Pence actively engaged in the deliberations and advocating for a more conservative posture, while Ivanka Trump and some other advisers arguing that the administration’s actions should be more moderate.
“There definitely was internal debate over what would be in the final draft,” a White House official said.
The president’s advisers agreed that Trump must live up to his campaign promise — repeated in the early days of his presidency — that he would destroy the Johnson Amendment. But Ivanka Trump and other advisers appealed to the president that he should resist taking further hard-line action, arguing that simply easing federal enforcement of the amendment would be enough to satisfy conservative activists.
“I don’t think it comes as any surprise that Ivanka wanted to be involved in the process,” the White House official said. “There wasn’t an intense debate internally, a showdown, and Ivanka and Jared were pitted against Pence. It really wasn’t like that. I think that Ivanka did a good job — not as first daughter but as assistant to the president — for making the case for what she thought was in the best interest of this presidency with regard to this executive order. Others made the case for what they thought was best. The president made the decision. And there has not been any dissent or backbiting in the wake of that.”
Andrew Bremberg, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, played a lead role in drafting the executive order and overseeing the policy process.
Exit polls in November showed Trump defeating Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton 80 percent to 16 percent among white evangelical Christians, and he has been eager to please a key part of his base.
"It's great to be doing it in the Rose Garden," Trump said at the outset of Thursday's ceremony. "How beautiful is that?"
Trump received a standing ovation from the audience, which included leaders from an array of faiths, when he said, "It was looking like you never get here, but folks, you got here."
Pence and more than a half-dozen Cabinet secretaries also attended the event, which kicked off with music by Steven Curtis Chapman, a Grammy Award-winning Christian singer.
In recent years, conservative Christian churches have become increasingly concerned that the federal government could come after their tax-exempt status if they profess opposition to gay rights and same-sex marriage. But even some pastors have endorsed the Johnson Amendment, arguing that it protects what is supposed to be a spiritual haven from the pernicious intrusion of politics.
In February, 89 percent of evangelical leaders said in a National Association of Evangelicals poll that they do not think pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.
Until Trump elevated it during his campaign, the Johnson Amendment was rarely a top priority for advocates of religious liberty. In fact, some faith groups have said they strongly support the amendment that Trump is weakening. Requiring churches to stay out of politics, they say, is key to separating church and state.
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a leading faith-based group focused on religious freedom, has said it supports the Johnson Amendment because keeping politics and religion separate is best for religion.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, criticized the executive order in a statement.
“For decades, the Johnson Amendment has prevented houses of worship from being turned into partisan political tools. A majority of clergy — and Americans — support the status quo and oppose political endorsements from the pulpit.”
Nonreligious groups also support the Johnson Amendment, which applies broadly to charities, not just churches. The Secular Coalition for America called the executive order Thursday "an unprecedented attack on the separation of church and state by a sitting president."
Another provision included in the order was intended as a response to the issue raised in the prominent Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor cases before the Supreme Court: whether employers must comply with the Affordable Care Act's requirement that insurance cover contraception for women.
In the Hobby Lobby case, the court said some employers can opt out of paying for their employees' birth control coverage for religious reasons. Afterward, the Obama administration announced new rules to allow for the insurance company to pay for the contraception instead.
Trump's order calls for "regulatory relief" for those parties but does not spell out what that might entail.
In a statement, Tom Price, Trump's health and human services secretary, said his department would "be taking action in short order" to follow up on Trump's direction.
Philip Rucker and Sankhya Somashekhar contributed to this report.