The Johnson Amendment

Policy Update: Continuing Attacks on the Johnson Amendment

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives narrowly approved an appropriations bill (H.R. 6147) that includes a provision effectively prohibiting the IRS from enforcing the Johnson Amendment specifically in religious organizations.  The latest House-approved provision directs the IRS not to use any of its resources to enforce claims of political activity undertaken by churches.  

Tim Delaney, CEO of National Council of Nonprofits, has written a good roundup of recent action on this bill --  the third attempt in the past few years to weaken  Johnson Amendment protections.  The Senate is expected to take up the House appropriations bill the last week of July.  While the Senate has resisted challenges to the Johnson Amendment in the past, it is essential that the charitable sector continue communicating its support of the Johnson Amendment. 

GWP’s board has endorsed a position in favor of preserving the Johnson Amendment as follows:

“GWP supports the rights of charitable organizations to continue their involvement in public policy, including engaging in public debates, promoting education efforts, and conducting issue-focused advocacy.   To ensure that nonprofits conduct these activities in a nonpartisan manner, GWP supports preserving the Johnson Amendment.   GWP opposes permitting public charities and other charitable organizations to endorse candidates, contribute to political campaigns or engage in partisan campaign activities.   It also opposes any additional limitations on the ability of nonprofit organizations to participate in the public policy process.”

Members are encouraged to call, email, or tweet Senator Casey and Senator Toomey and ask them to oppose all efforts to add an anti-Johnson Amendment provision to the Financial Services and General Government appropriations bill.  According to the Council on Foundations, private foundations may lobby regarding the Johnson Amendment.   Below is the Council’s statement:

"Treasury Regulation 53.4945-2(d)(3) confers a self-defense exception to private foundations for communications with a legislative body regarding legislation that affects the “existence of the private foundation, its powers and duties, its tax-exempt status or the deductibility of contributions to such foundation.”  It is the Council’s position that a private foundation’s ability or inability to participate in political activity falls within this self-defense exception as this type of activity is directly related to its powers and duties. Accordingly, if a private foundation wanted to support or oppose changes in the law that would affect this activity, including changes or repeal of the Johnson amendment by reaching out to legislators, that action would fall within the self-defense exception.  However, the Council respects its members’ own determinations regarding legal issues, and individual policies or practices related to lobbying activity.  We encourage members to consult with their own legal counsel regarding any questions."


About The Johnson Ammendment

The Johnson Amendment is a 60-year-old law that prevents 501c3 organizations from endorsing or financially supporting political candidates. President Trump has indicated his desire to repeal the amendment, and several bills have been introduced in Congress to repeal or severely weaken the law.

On May 4, 2017, the President issued an Executive Order related to the Johnson Amendment. 

Community Response

A nationwide coalition of 501(c)(3) organizations, made up of charitable nonprofits, including religious institutions, philanthropy serving organizations and foundations have responded by signing The Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship, which makes a strong statement in support of nonpartisanship and urges those who have vowed to repeal or weaken this vital protection to leave existing law in place for nonprofit organizations and the people they serve. GWP has also signed this community letter in support of nonpartisanship.

The United Philanthropy Forum  (of which GWP is a member) supports the continued full enforcement of current law that prohibits 501(c)(3) charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates and engaging in partisan campaign activities—also known as the “Johnson Amendment.”   

The National Association of State Charity Officials (NASCO) sent a letter to Congressional leaders, arguing that charitable activities should remain non-partisan.  They expressed concern that permitting even limited partisan activity would have adverse impacts on their ability to  ensure charitable resources are being used for charitable purposes, thereby preserving trust in the integrity of public charities.  

According to the Council on Foundations, if the Johnson Amendment were repealed, 501(c)(3) organizations could become entities that are given tax-deductible donations for the purpose of participating in the electoral process, and donors would be completely shielded from disclosure—hindering transparency. 501(c)(3)s would be able to participate in influencing elections without disclosing their donors as long as “no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation.  Effectively, this would completely open the door to endorsing or opposing specific political candidates, while still maintaining restrictions for charities to lobby on behalf of issues and legislation.

Independent Sector Statement - Independent Sector is troubled by any proposal to repeal the Johnson Amendment, a law that prohibits all 501(c)(3) organizations, including religious organizations, from engaging in political activity or endorsing candidates. 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.

National Council of Nonprofits Statement - The National Council of Nonprofits has long held that the public’s overall trust in the sector would diminish and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community if individual 501(c)(3) organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are.