Independent Sector Statement on Religious Liberty Executive Order

The following is a statement by Daniel J. Cardinali, president and CEO, Independent Sector:

“President Donald Trump’s executive order, Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty, puts us on a fundamentally wrong path by effectively easing Johnson Amendment prohibitions against political activity for 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations.

For 60 years, this law has played an essential role in maintaining public confidence in, and support for, the charitable community. It ensures that charities remain a nonpartisan haven, separate from politics, in our civil society. While the executive order frames this issue as one of religious liberty, the Johnson Amendment applies broadly to all 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches. Currently, Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code permits charities to interact with public officials on a limited basis while strictly prohibiting them from engaging in political activity. This is an appropriate distinction, as countless charities work every day to educate public officials on issues relevant to their mission and important to their clients, members, or communities.

Yet this distinction is not always clear under current law, and this lack of clarity has consistently discouraged many charitable organizations from engaging in critically important advocacy work. Rather than taking steps to clarify these rules, this executive order only adds to the complexity and confusion around what charitable organizations, including religious institutions, are allowed to do under the law.

Speaking out and engaging in advocacy on mission-driven issues is an entirely different matter than endorsing candidates or getting involved in political campaigns. 501(c)(3) organizations, as the public trust demands, should remain above the political fray, advocating and informing leaders, but not engaging in political activity.”

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Independent Sector is the only national membership organization that brings together a diverse set of nonprofits, foundations, and corporations to advance the common good. Learn more at independentsector.org.

Types: Press Release
Global Topics: Administration
Policy Issues: Lobbying & Political Activity, Political Activity Rules
  • Jenny Council

    Please update this statement to be clearer and more plain speaking; as a sector we suffer from being too nuanced! Here is A letter I am sending to the paper. We need to address head-on the lie that charities and churches cannot speak freely on their issues.

    “Churches and nonprofits have always had free speech under the Johnson amendment. They are free to advocate on ANY issue, and can publicly support and lobby for and against bills at the local and national level. This has been true for decades.

    The Johnson amendment simply prevents endorsement of specific candidates in the name of the charity or church.

    Individuals, such as pastors or staff at nonprofits have always had personal free speech to support candidates as private citizens, they simply cannot pin the name of their charity, foundation or church on that endorsement. They cannot funnel donor or collection plate funds to specific candidate campaigns, they can only donate their own money.

    In the ceaseless drive for campaign contributions Politicians have strong incentive to get their sticky fingers on charitable donor funds and church collection plate money, and have chosen to misrepresent the Johnson amendment and sow confusion about the freedoms charities and churches already have.

    Without the Johnson Amendment political operatives will be able to create “shell” foundations whose only “charitable” purpose would be to funnel tax-free money to candidates.

    Such cynical misuse of fake “charitable” and “religious” entities will further corrupt our politics and undermine our real faith and charitable sector.

    Running “vote for me” ads is not what the religious and charitable deduction is for.

    • Allison Grayson

      Thank you so much, Jenny for your comment. You make an excellent argument and we hope more members of the nonprofit sector will consider submitting their thoughts on this topic to their newspapers. As you mention, all 501(c)(3) organizations are able to advocate on any issue under current law. The Johnson Amendment only restricts their ability to use tax-exempt resources to endorse or oppose a political candidate. Similar points are included in other Independent Sector resources on this issue, including our Statement on the Johnson Amendment and Political Activity and two episodes in our 100 Days for Good podcast.

      Independent Sector wants to make sure that policymakers do not assume that the law’s only value is in restricting the flow of money to political candidates. It is important that they understand a proposal to repeal the Johnson Amendment, even when specifying a “de minimis” use of nonprofit resources, poses a fundamental threat to charities’ ability to remain nonpartisan and preserve the public’s trust. We also want to acknowledge that the Trump Administration can take administrative action to improve rules governing nonprofit political activity. For several years, Independent Sector worked as a part of a coalition to lobby Congress and the Obama Administration for clearer definitions of political activity for all 501(c) organizations. The goal is to create bright lines defining what is and is not political activity, which would help more nonprofits feel comfortable engaging in advocacy and nonpartisan civic engagement.

      Thank you, again, for your comment and please let us know if you would like any additional information or resources on this issue to support your advocacy efforts.

  • Sue Lani Madsen

    After attending a couple of Independent Sector conferences, it would be difficult for me name many attendees who consistently remained “above the political fray, advocating and informing leaders, but not engaging in political activity.” Almost all were clearly so comfortable advocating for a progressive agenda that they had ceased to see the line dividing political advocacy with informing and educating.

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