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Trump readies 'religious liberty' order that could reenergize Georgia effort

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump plans to sign a long-awaited executive order on 'religious liberty' Thursday that could have a ripple effect in Georgia, where conservatives have tried for years to pass similar legislation.

The action would nudge the Treasury Department and Internal Revenue Service to be more flexible in enforcing a 1954 law that essentially bans churches from endorsing candidates or engaging in other political activity if they want to keep their tax-exempt status.

Trump railed against the policy, more commonly known as the Johnson Amendment, on the campaign trail, arguing that it unconstitutionally restricts free speech. He vowed to "totally destroy" it in February, but the authority to do so ultimately lies with Congress.

"Politicians and unelected bureaucrats shouldn’t have the power to shut up their critics just because they’re church leaders or charities," a senior White House official said Wednesday evening. Trump "thinks that’s intolerant and un-American, and if there’s anything the First Amendment is designed to protect, it’s that."

Trump is scheduled to sign the order as part of a National Day of Prayer event at the White House Rose Garden at 11:00 a.m. Immediately prior to that, he'll huddle with Catholic cardinals and leaders in the Oval office.

The action would also pave the way for some religious nonprofit groups to withhold certain health benefits from their employees if it violates their beliefs. That would allow specific groups, such as the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor, from being forced to provide contraception coverage to their workers.

Critics argue the executive order could open the door to discrimination against gays, lesbians and others.

“If President Trump signs an executive order that attempts to provide a license to discriminate against women or LGBT people, we will see him in court," Louise Melling, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

The White House official said Trump's action is "not about discrimination."

"We don’t have any plans to discriminate. What we’re about is not discriminating against religious organizations," the staffer said.

Trump's action could galvanize supporters of Georgia's long-simmering 'religious liberty' legislation.

The Republican-controlled statehouse passed legislation last year that would have allowed faith-based organizations to deny services to those who violate their “sincerely held religious belief.” Gov. Nathan Deal vetoed the measure after the state was met with boycott threats from gay rights groups and big-name companies who warned it could harm the Georgia's business-friendly image.

A few similar-sounding proposals emerged during this year's legislative session, but senior GOP leaders slammed the door shut on the prospect.

Read more: 

Adoption bill stalls in Georgia after anti-LGBT amendment added

Georgia governor slams ‘religious liberty’ change to adoption bill

Georgia governor slams door on ‘religious liberty’ revival

‘Religious liberty’ fight returns to Georgia Capitol

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About the Author

Tamar Hallerman is The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Washington correspondent, covering Congress, federal agencies and other government activities that impact Georgia.