President Donald Trump today pledged to "destroy" the six-decade-old Johnson Amendment, which bars churches from engaging in political activities.
"It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, 'The God who gave us life gave us liberty.' Jefferson asked, 'Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?' Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs," Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning.
Trump added, "That is why 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 said freedom of religion is "a sacred right" and is "under threat all around us."
"I've never seen it so much and so openly as since I took the position of president," he added.
The Johnson Amendment, enacted in 1954, prohibits tax-exempt organizations from engaging in political campaign activities at the risk of losing that exemption. A draft executive order on "religious freedom," obtained Wednesday by ABC News, contains provisions that would curtail the law, although the White House said it has no plans to act on such an executive order today.
This is not the first time Trump has vowed to repeal the amendment. He spoke of rolling it back numerous times on the campaign trail.
"I think it's very unfair, and one of the things I will do very early in my administration is to get rid of the Johnson Amendment so that our great pastors and ministers, rabbis and everybody and priests and everybody can go and tell and can participate in the process," Trump said at a campaign event in Virginia in October.
Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., who introduced a bill Wednesday to "address the shortcomings of the Johnson Amendment," applauded the president's comments.
But Trump's comments have drawn criticism from at least one member of the clergy. The Rev. James Martin, for example, tweeted that "even if made legal, churches should not speak out on overtly political matters or endorse political candidates."
Even if made legal, churches should not speak out on overtly political matters or endorse political candidates. It ends up dividing parishes https://t.co/hZC2aGylmj— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) February 2, 2017
Another reason churches should not endorse: to avoid becoming too allied with one political party, thus alienating many of their congregants— James Martin, SJ (@JamesMartinSJ) February 2, 2017
He's an editor-at-large of the magazine America.
The American Humanist Association and American Atheists also slammed the proposed move.
ABC News' Katherine Faulders, Devin Dwyer and Rick Klein contributed reporting to this report.