Opinions in the Field:
Why We Must Protect the Johnson Amendment
Nonprofits engaged in deep community change often lead efforts in advocacy, civic engagement, and lobbying. This is a time-tested pillar of our democracy, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, protected in case law, and codified in federal legislation. A strong and vital civil society depends on a nonprofit sector that is actively engaged in informing the policy process through nonpartisan activities, especially as nonprofits serve as a primary voice for underrepresented and under-resourced communities.
Yet the nonprofit voice sometimes is muted because many organizations worry they may run afoul of the Johnson Amendment, a 1956 law, enacted with bipartisan support, that created boundaries between lobbying on issues (allowed) and endorsing candidates for public office (not allowed). Some have called this law a gag on free speech because of the prohibition on political endorsements. President Trump has called for its repeal, siding with some faith organizations that say the law is a threat to their moral leadership. Further, the President issued an executive order directing agencies not to enforce the provisions of the law on religious organizations. The Johnson Amendment has shielded the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors from electoral politics—that’s its important value to our sector. While all Americans and tax-exempt organizations that are not 501(c)(3) charities have been able to endorse political candidates, this law merely prohibits the 1.2 million charitable organizations (including foundations) from using their tax-deductible resources for these purposes.
Why is this prohibition important to the charitable sector? Its loss could introduce dark money into the charitable space. With the tax-deductible benefits of donating to nonprofits and philanthropic organizations, political donors could be incentivized to switch from giving money to political action committees, which are required to identify their donors, and instead give to nonprofits, which are not required to identify donors. Second, we could lose our greatest asset: trust. According to one recent poll, 74 percent of Americans say they trust the nonprofit sector, including religious organizations. Without the “safe harbor” of nonpartisanship enshrined in the Johnson Amendment, our sector’s credibility could be called into question. The siren call of partisan politics is a dangerous distraction from our true missions to serve the common good. For these reasons and more, we oppose any effort to repeal or weaken the Johnson Amendment.
We understand the frustration of some nonprofit leaders, including religious leaders, who struggle to understand the lines that separate legitimate policy engagement from prohibited political activities. However, the answer to these concerns is to sharpen the boundaries, not obliterate them. We have joined with the National Council of Nonprofits and more than 4,500 other voices in the sector who have signed a letter that opposes the repeal of this important law.
Our message to Congress is clear: Keep the Johnson Amendment in place. Any future action should make the boundaries clearer so that every nonprofit is empowered to engage on the issues for the public good and not for political gain.
Dan Cardinali is President and CEO of Independent Sector. Vikki Spruill is President and CEO of the Council on Foundations.