President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order that, among other things, called for the federal government to halt its enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches from engaging in politics.
"In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective," stated Section 2 of the executive order.
Many conservative groups have called for an end to the Johnson Amendment, seeing it as an unlawful way to muzzle the freedom of speech and freedom of religion of churches.
There are many misconceptions about the Johnson Amendment. Here are six myths about the federal law, including what the amendment does, if it could survive a legal challenge, and who is most likely to violate it.
Most of the debate over the Johnson Amendment has been centered on its effect on houses of worship, with critics arguing that the federal law unjustly attacks churches.
However, as noted by the Internal Revenue Service, the Johnson Amendment applies to all 501(c)(3) organizations, which can include secular groups.
"To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual," explained the IRS.
"The organization must not be organized or operated for the benefit of private interests, and no part of a section 501(c)(3) organization's net earnings may inure to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual."
Back in 1954, when then Senator Lyndon Johnson introduced the Amendment, he did so in response to the actions of a non-church entity called the Committee for Constitutional Government.
Opponents of the Johnson Amendment have often argued that the federal measure is muzzling churches by threatening them with loss of their tax-exemption status if they talk about politics.
However, the Johnson Amendment is notable for rarely being enforced. The conservative group the Alliance Defending Freedom sponsors an annual event called "Pulpit Freedom Sunday."
Pulpit Freedom Sunday involves hundreds of churches nationwide purposely violating the Johnson Amendment and then sending the evidence to the IRS to create a test case.
Despite hundreds of clergy sending clear evidence of violating the Johnson Amendment, the number of actions taken against churches since 1954 are few in number.
Liberal groups have lamented the lack of enforcement, with the Freedom From Religion Foundation suing the IRS in 2012.
In 2014, the IRS reached a settlement with the FFRF stating that the IRS had "flagged churches involved with political intervention, including churches that submitted materials as part of Pulpit Freedom Sunday."
Regardless, participating churches in Pulpit Freedom Sunday since the 2014 ruling have yet to report being stripped of their tax exemption status due to violating the Johnson Amendment.
The aforementioned Pulpit Freedom Sunday observance is geared toward creating a lawsuit against the IRS to lead to the striking down of the Johnson Amendment as unconstitutional.
"Alliance Defending Freedom wants to generate test cases that we can carry to the U.S. Supreme Court in order to end the unconstitutional restrictions that now exist infringing on the rights of pastors to use moral and biblical standards to support or oppose candidates for public office," stated the ADF.
However, in the past the Johnson Amendment survived a legal challenge back in 1999 in the case of Branch Ministries Inc. vs. Charles O. Rossotti.
U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman of the District of Columbia upheld the Johnson Amendment when ruling against a church that ran ads against then President Bill Clinton.
"In the circumstances presented here — where a tax-exempt church bought an advertisement that stated its opposition to a particular candidate for public office, attributed the advertisement to the church and solicited tax-deductible contributions for the advertisement — the IRS was justified in revoking the tax-exempt status of the church," read Friedman's decision.
"Plaintiffs were offered a choice: they could engage in partisan political activity and forfeit their Section 501(c)(3) status or they could refrain from partisan political activity and retain their Section 501(c)(3) status. That choice is unconnected to plaintiffs' ability to freely exercise their religion. Plaintiffs therefore have not demonstrated that the IRS substantially burdened their free exercise of religion."
Many view the efforts to overturn the Johnson Amendment as a way of advancing political agendas through conservative white evangelical pulpits.
In response to Trump's past remarks vowing to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment, Americans United for Separation of Church and State's Executive Director, the Rev. Barry Lynn, echoed this sentiment.
"President Donald Trump and his allies in the religious right seek to turn America's houses of worship into miniature political action committees," stated Lynn.
However, evidence suggests that the more likely source of politics from the pulpit would not be from white evangelicals supporting Republicans, but rather black clergy supporting Democrats.
Last year, Pew Research Center released a report which found that African-American churches had far more political rhetoric during worship than white evangelical congregations.
"Compared with other groups, black Protestant churchgoers report hearing more direct talk about candidates from church leaders," noted Pew.
"They have heard much more support for Clinton (28 percent) than for Trump (2 percent) and have heard clergy speak out against Trump (20 percent) more often than against Clinton (7 percent). Smaller shares of white evangelical Protestant churchgoers report hearing their clergy speak out in support of (4 percent) or against (7 percent) specific candidates, and the message is more mixed ..."
President Trump campaigned with the promise of ending the Johnson Amendment and earlier this year he reiterated this vow at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.
"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," said Trump.
Despite the Executive Order's Section 2 text, Trump's efforts do not mean that the Johnson Amendment has been eliminated, but rather remains codified in the IRS code.
Experts like Notre Dame Law Professor Llyod Mayer told USA Today that Trump's Executive Order "does not really resolve anything with respect to the Johnson Amendment."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which was planning to sue the Trump administration over the order, posted a message to Twitter that they would not seek legal action after all.
"We thought we'd have to sue Trump today. But it turned out the order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome," stated the ACLU, adding, "Trump's assertion that he wished to 'totally destroy' the Johnson Amendment with this order has proven to be a textbook case of 'fake news.'"
While many who oppose the Johnson Amendment want to endorse political candidates, others, including fairly prominent evangelical groups, are defending the rights of pastors to do something they themselves would not do.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is one example.
In an interview with the Baptist Press in 2013, Moore said he has no plans of endorsing political candidates from the pulpit even if the Johnson Amendment is repealed.
"While I don't think a church normally should endorse candidates for office from the pulpit, that's only because I believe the mission of the church ought to stand prophetically distant from political horsetrading," said Moore.
"A congregation should decide when to speak and what to say. Such decisions shouldn't be dictated by bureaucrats at the IRS or anywhere else."
The National Association of Evangelicals released a statement earlier this year claiming that nearly 90 percent of evangelical leaders oppose discussing politics from the pulpit.
Nevertheless, NAE also noted in its report that some respondents said "they believe the government should not penalize churches or pastors who decide to endorse candidates."