LDS Church reaffirms ‘political neutrality’ in response to Trump’s religious liberties executive order

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints said a new executive order issued by President Donald Trump on religious liberties will not affect its vow to remain "politically neutral."

The Mormon faith issued a statement to FOX 13 in response to questions about President Trump's executive order, which directs the IRS to relax enforcement of the Johnson amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt churches and religious groups from getting involved with political campaigns.

"We are always grateful for the efforts of leaders to safeguard religious freedom and protect the beliefs and religious exercise of all people," LDS Church spokesman Eric Hawkins told FOX 13 in an email on Thursday. "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been and remains committed to political neutrality. Today’s executive order will not affect that longstanding policy."

A statue of early Mormon Church leader Brigham Young outside Temple Square in Salt Lake City. (FOX 13 file photo)

The LDS Church's position on "political neutrality" has long meant the faith does not endorse particular candidates, allow its facilities or membership lists to be used for partisan purposes or tell members what political party or candidate they should get behind. However, the church does encourage its members to be politically active, and does weigh in on issues it "believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church."

Utah is in a unique position politically when it comes to church and state. Mormon pioneers settled here, fleeing religious persecution in other states. It remains the global headquarters of the faith.

The LDS Church has a presence on Utah's Capitol Hill, where more than 80-percent of the legislature is Mormon. The faith has been known to weigh in on legislation of social consequence, from alcohol policy to LGBT rights.

President Donald Trump signs religious liberties executive order. (Pool video image)

House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, who is also Mormon, told FOX 13 he worried the president's executive order begins a step toward integrating church and state.

"I've got colleagues up here in the House of Representatives that believe there ought to be closer integration of church and state and when I say church, I mean LDS Church here in the state of Utah," he said. "I think that's a problem. To the extent we go down that road, I think it's unwise. I think it's bad public policy."

Rep. King said he believes lawmakers need to aggressively police themselves when it comes to separation of church and state, regardless of what faith group is weighing in.

Despite the president's executive order, other Utah churches also reaffirmed their stance of neutrality.

"The order will not change our practice. We encourage all parishioners to prayerfully and thoughtfully discern their own voting decisions, guided by the principles of Catholic social teaching," the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City said in a statement.

In an interview with FOX 13, the Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah said he had "mixed feelings" on the president's executive order.

The Rt. Rev. Scott B. Hayashi, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, in an interview with FOX 13's Ben Winslow on Thursday. (Image by Todd Gilbert, FOX 13 News)

"On the one level I’m happy he did not attempt to allow businesses to discriminate on religious grounds," he said. "On the other hand there is a fair amount to be concerned about what may be coming next."

The Episcopal bishop, who is an outspoken presence on Utah's Capitol Hill on issues from health care to equal rights, said he always takes care not to endorse a candidate or party in his job. Rev. Hayashi said he believes people should be welcome to sit in pews, regardless of how they vote.

"The danger I see coming that therefore churches can simply become tools of whatever candidate or wealthy individual wants to get so-and-so elected to office," he said.