By Cath Thompson
As busy charitable sector leaders, what are the most pressing policy issues on our minds? The charitable deduction maybe. Tax reform. Advocacy around our specific issue areas.
But how many of us lay awake at night thinking about the future of the Johnson Amendment?
“Excuse me? The Johnson what?” you ask.
Indeed. This is one of the most critically important laws in the charitable sector, but few of us know much about it.
The Johnson Amendment was a change to the U.S. Tax Code in 1954, proposed by then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. This Amendment prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including nonprofits, foundations, and houses of worship from endorsing, funding, and opposing political candidates. Essentially, it prohibits tax-exempt charitable organizations from throwing their hat into the ring of a particular candidate, it keeps political donations from flowing through 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, and keeps these organizations focused on social good rather than partisan politics.
Opponents of the Johnson Amendment believe that this law curbs freedom of speech, and is an example of government overreach. The debate over the Johnson Amendment often focuses on faith-based organizations and how much religious leaders can say from their pulpits, but the law applies to charities.
In his acceptance speech at the 2016 RNC Conference, Donald Trump clearly outlined his opinion:
“An amendment, pushed by Lyndon Johnson, many years ago, threatens religious institutions with a loss of their tax-exempt status if they openly advocate their political views. I am going to work very hard to repeal that language and protect free speech for all Americans.”
This February, President Trump went further at the National Prayer Breakfast, which is attended by the President and faith leaders every year, saying, “I will get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
In the newest episode of Independent Sector’s 100 Days for Good podcast, we called upon Johnson Amendment expert Emily Peterson-Cassin, Project Coordinator for Public Citizen’s Bright Lines Project, to explain the importance of the amendment. “Allowing partisan politics into religious and charitable life would threaten faith in the sector,” says Peterson-Cassin.
“501(c)(3)s have up until now remained above the political fray and committed to their missions. Repeal would threaten the public’s confidence that their contributions would be used for universally valued purposes rather than mere partisan politics. In addition, without the Johnson Amendment, (c)(3)s would be open to partisan exploitation by donors and leaders with political agendas.”
You can learn more from Emily about the Johnson Amendment as part of this week’s episode of100 Days for Good, including how it affects every single charitable organization (even yours!) and what you can do as a citizen and nonprofit leader today to make sure that our charities are not used for political manipulation.
In addition to to our weekly podcast, Independent Sector’s website has resources and trainings on how to use advocacy as a powerful tool in your work within the charitable sector. Check out our upcoming webinar to learn how to position your organization for advocacy success by engaging your board, aligning your staff, and leveraging coalitions.
Cath Thompson is the associate for programs and practice at Independent Sector.