Let’s keep nonprofit sector neutral

OpEd by Marnie Taylor, President and CEO

Under terms of the 1954 federal 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.”

In short, nonprofits cannot endorse political candidates.

Last month, bills were introduced in the U.S. Congress that would change this important legislation and allow nonprofit organizations and churches to endorse candidates because of perceived problems with the understanding of the law. Yet, today, there is enormous confusion among the public, some policy makers and congregations about what can be said in the normal course of business.

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. The confusion about limits to their speech has emerged because the public and legislators have confused advocacy with candidate endorsement.

Many organizations have public policy platforms that guide discussions on particular issues. As long as the nonprofit doesn’t specifically endorse a candidate for office, they can discuss those platforms and stances with the public and policy makers. Additionally, they may discuss issues without fear of an IRS audit. Only when it comes to endorsement candidates, nonprofits must remain neutral.

Nonprofits may also encourage staff members or volunteers to participate in elections as individual citizens on their own time. 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. However, the nonprofit itself may not endorse a candidate.

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 pressured to endorse a candidate as part of the terms within a contribution. In the end, changing the Johnson Amendment could irrevocably damage the charitable sector, harming the very people we serve.

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