President Donald Trump has renewed his call to eliminate a rule that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofits, particularly churches, from making political endorsements.
During remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast this morning, Trump invoked the words of Thomas Jefferson before saying he will “get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.”
The Johnson Amendment is named for former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in 1954 was a key senator when President Dwight Eisenhower signed it into law.
The provision within the U.S. tax code prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations from directly participating in political campaigns or advocating on behalf or against a specific candidate. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has the authority to revoke tax-exempt status if a nonprofit crosses the line, which would mean donors could not claim charitable deductions for their contributions.
Organizations classified as 501(c)(3) nonprofits are allowed limited lobbying and advocacy measures but are not allowed to participate on behalf of or against a particular candidate.
The National Council of Nonprofits issued a statement today expressing strong opposition to the latest attempts to dismantle the Johnson Amendment.
“Nonpartisanship is vital to the work of charitable nonprofits,” said Tim Delaney, president of the Council of Nonprofits. “It enables organizations to address community challenges, and invites the problem-solving skills of all residents, without the distractions of party labels and the caustic partisanship that is bedeviling our country,” he said.
Measures already have been reintroduced or proposed in Congress to repeal the Johnson Amendment. Proposed legislation would alter “longstanding federal law that protects charitable nonprofits and foundations and the donating public by preventing them from engaging in partisan, election-related activities,” Delaney said. Although the proposals are “couched in terms of relating to churches,” he said the underlying law relates to all charitable nonprofits and foundations.
“The president’s statement this morning, together with this proposed executive order, constituents a stunning assault on free speech, and a gift to dark money groups – as long as they agree with the president,” said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW). “The order would eliminate longstanding restrictions on political speech nonprofits, and favor religion, allowing the government to penalize some political viewpoints by nonprofit organizations while protecting the opposite view points, and would sanction discrimination against a particular group of people,” Bookbinder said in a statement.
Delaney suggested more productive outlets for their concern, such as guaranteeing a seat at the table in policy discussions for a sector that employs 10 percent of the workforce; preserving and expanding charitable giving incentives in any tax reform measures; and considering the impact of domestic spending cuts on nonprofits that already subsidize governments at all levels.
Repeal of the amendment was included in the Republican National Committee’s official platform at its national convention last summer and the move has its proponents. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has argued that the Johnson Amendment is unconstitutional because the IRS dictates what church pastors can and cannot say. The Scottsdale, Ariz.-based organization began organizing Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008.
ADF hosted an event yesterday on the introduction of the Free Speech Fairness Act (H.R. 781), legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Jody Hice (R-Ga.). There also has been legislation (S. 264) proposed by Sen. James Lankford (R-Texas) and a bill (H.R. 172) by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) that would impact to the Johnson Amendment.
One of most well known recent instances that came under review by the IRS was when then-Chairman Julian Bond called on members of the NAACP to increase voter turnout to help unseat President George W. Bush in the 2004 election. After a two-year investigation, the IRS ultimately ruled that Bond’s remarks during the NAACP’s annual convention did not violate the organization’s 501(c)(3) status.