The Johnson Amendment – Let’s Keep It Intact!

Under terms of the 1954 legislation (named for its principal sponsor, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson), churches and other nonprofit organizations that are exempt from taxation “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office,” according to the IRS website.

In short, nonprofits cannot endorse political candidates.

CONFUSION ABOUT THE LAW

The law was written to be unambiguous and to draw a hard line in the sand for nonprofit organizations. Since 1954, charitable organizations have heeded this rule with few exceptions so that they remained “politically neutral,” while still discussing policies related to their mission.

Yet, today, there is enormous confusion among the public, some policy makers and congregations (the law also applies to churches) about what can be said in the normal course of business.

NONPROFITS MAY DISCUSS ISSUES – NOT CANDIDATES

While the law specifically forbids endorsement of candidates and interventions in those campaigns, it certainly does not curtail the rights of nonprofits, their employees or their boards from discussing policy issues. Those policy issues can be seemingly innocuous (should PTAs be required to collect and remit sales tax on a school carnival bake sale), but they could also veer into hotly contested social issues that have become increasingly political in the last several years.

According to the law, nonprofits can certainly discuss those issues, take sides and stances and encourage others to advocate on them. These include issues such as abortion, gun rights, marriage equality, the death penalty and more. The confusion about limits to their speech has emerged because the public and legislators have confused policy with candidate endorsement.

NONPROFITS SHOULD HAVE A POLICY PLATFORM AND USE IT!

Many organizations have public policy platforms that may resemble one of our political party’s own platforms. However, as long as the nonprofit or church doesn’t specifically endorse a candidate for office, they can discuss those platforms and stances with their own constituents. Pastors may freely preach on those issues, nonprofit leaders can advocate on those issues, and all can produce issue guides for voters WITHOUT fears of an IRS audit.

Moreover, most nonprofit organizations have policy platforms that are more nuanced or mixed, and don’t easily fall into a political party’s own platform. Take for instance a church that takes a strong position against abortion and then takes a position against the death penalty. This is why neutrality is so important, as political parties may have different platforms on either subject.

INDIVIDUALS CAN CONTINUE TO BE INVOLVED

More importantly, nonprofits cannot dictate to their staffs on how they must vote or prevent staff members or volunteers from participating in elections as individual citizens. Individuals speaking on their own behalf may endorse candidates themselves, put signs in yards, bumper stickers on their cars and fully participate in the electoral process WITHOUT fear of reprisal. The line is crossed only when the nonprofit itself endorses a candidate.

OTHER NATIONAL GROUPS HAVE CONCERNS

The National Council of Nonprofits, Independent Sector, BoardSource and the Interfaith Alliance have all voiced opposition to eliminating the Johnson Amendment. In a statement from Independent Sector, CEO Daniel Cardinali said, “Allowing the endorsement of political candidates is tantamount to allowing political agents to use the public’s goodwill towards the charitable sector as a vehicle to advance, through financial contributions, their own partisan political will.”

BoardSource President and CEO Anne Wallestad went further by saying, “It will spiral out of control — fast. Practically speaking, if section 501(c)(3) organizations were allowed to electioneer, 501(c)(3) organizations would be created and managed for the express purpose of influencing elections.” She also noted that nonprofits already have an avenue for participating in elections by forming a 501(c)(4) organization.

KEEP THE JOHNSON AMENDMENT INTACT

The Johnson Amendment has served for more than six decades to maintain a neutral and level playing field for organizations. While their policy positions might be construed as political, crossing a line into candidate endorsement would be detrimental to the neutrality of the nonprofit sector and the trust it enshrines with the public, donors and policy makers.

In fact, the only people that would benefit from taking away this vital piece of legislation would be the candidates themselves. This would eventually erode a long-held trust among those in the charitable sector. Nonprofits do not want to risk the loss of donors should they endorse a candidate. Nonprofits should also NEVER be forced to endorse a candidate as part of the terms within a contribution. In the end, destroying the Johnson Amendment would eventually destroy trust in the charitable sector, harming the very people we serve.

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Other Resources

The Johnson Amendment in Five Questions and Answers
National Public Radio
http://www.npr.org/2017/02/03/513187940/the-johnson-amendment-in-five-questions-and-answers

While this article mainly highlights churches, charitable nonprofits and foundations, which account for nearly 70% of the nation’s 1.5 million nonprofits, also follow the same rules. Only 20% of those are congregations.

Protecting Nonprofit Nonpartisanship
National Council of Nonprofits
https://www.councilofnonprofits.org/thought-leadership/protecting-nonprofit-nonpartisanship-initial-commentary

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