By Chris Joyner / Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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 Last week, President Donald Trump signed an executive order following up on campaign promises to loosen restrictions on churches’ involvement in politics and chipping away at a 63-year-old federal ban on endorsements from the pulpit.

“We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced anymore,” Trump said the day of the signing, which corresponded with the National Day of Prayer.

The order instructs the executive branch, but especially the Treasury Department, not to penalize any person or institution that “speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective” where similar rhetoric has not been considered “participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office.”

So what, if anything, does that mean?

‘Mostly symbolic’

Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a Washington-based group aligned with mainline Baptist churches, said both the executive order and the chilling effect of the Johnson Amendment are overblown.

“On its face the order looks to be mostly symbolic. It’s hard to see what the real practical difference will be on the IRS’s enforcement of the political ban,” she said. “The IRS has not been actively enforcing this provision despite quite a bit of provocation.”

Outside of conservative, evangelical Protestant circles, religious leaders appreciate the protections the Johnson Amendment provides against political interference in matters of faith, she said.

Some fear a weakening of the wall between campaigns and congregations would set up faith organizations to become targets of “dark money” political donations, a way to influence political speech by making contributions to churches with ministers willing to violate the ban. Those contributions would be both hard to trace and tax-deductible themselves.

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