Both religious freedom advocates and secularists are claiming victory after the Freedom From Religion Foundation dropped its federal lawsuit against President Donald Trump's May 4 executive order on religious liberty that threatened to take the teeth out of the Johnson Amendment.
This week, the nation's largest secularist legal organization filed a notice of voluntary dismissal with the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin pertaining to the matter of FFRF v. Trump.
The lawsuit, which also listed IRS Commissioner John Koskinen, challenged Trump's order that the Department of Treasury, and by extension the Internal Revenue Service, not take "adverse action" against a church or religious organization that speaks about "moral and political issues from a religious perspective."
FFRF, which advocates for a strict version of separation of church and state, has been one of the biggest advocates supporting the Johnson Amendment, a 1954 law that prevents churches and other 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from engaging in political campaigning with the punishment of losing their tax-exempt statuses.
FFRF claimed in its lawsuit that Trump's order violates the "Take Care Clause" of Article II of the United States Constitution, which demands that the president must "take care that the laws be faithfully executed." FFRF also claimed that the executive order is unlawful because it provides "preferential treatment to churches."
Considering that abolishing the Johnson Amendment was one of Trump's biggest campaign promises to evangelical and conservative Christians, the Trump administration filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit earlier this year on grounds of "failure to state a claim."
The administration's motion claims that Trump's executive order does not "afford unequal treatment" and that the plaintiffs' claim "presents a purely political question."
On Monday, FFRF announced that it had filed its motion to dismiss its lawsuit and claimed that it did so because the Trump administration had explained in court filings earlier this year that the executive order "does not exempt religious organizations from the restrictions on political campaign activity applicable to all tax-exempt organizations."
The Justice Department stated in the court documents that the executive order "directs the Government not to take adverse action against religious organizations that it would not take against other organizations in the enforcement of these restrictions."
Although the Trump administration maintained that FFRF simply misunderstood the order, FFRF argues that the Justice Department's response shows that Trump's promises to eliminate the Johnson Amendment have not proven to be true.
"By filing an amended complaint we were able to get into the record Trump's continuing and misleading braggadocio over the effect of the order," FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a statement. "We did not accept that the government was saying one thing, while Trump was saying another. We're pleased we got the DOJ to reiterate its position twice in a court of law."
"[C]learly it is Trump who misunderstands both the order and the extent of his power," Gaylor added.
FFRF's move to dismiss its lawsuit was cheered by the conservative religious liberty legal organization Becket, which filed to intervene in defense of the order this past summer.
Becket explained that this is not the first time that FFRF has challenged and been "defeated" in legal challenges regarding the Johnson Amendment. In 2014, an FFRF lawsuit was dismissed that tried to force the IRS into enforcing the Johnson Amendment on a small Wisconsin church.
"By law, because this is now the second time that FFRF has given up on the same claim, FFRF's dismissal means they have lost on the merits — and the pastors have permanently fended off FFRF," Becket said.
"FFRF is running away again, and this time for good — in federal court, you don't get a third bite at the apple," Becket counsel Daniel Blomberg, said in a statement. "Which is great news for pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams who want to preach their faith without IRS censorship. The pulpit is one place where a little more separation of church and state would go a long way."
Although FFRF filed a lawsuit, other liberal organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, refrained from challenging the executive order on religious liberty because they never believed the order followed through on Trump's promise to "destroy" the Johnson Amendment.