Johnson Amendment

Protect Nonprofit Nonpartisanship

Information about the federal Johnson Amendment

For nearly 70 years, an important provision in the federal tax code Section 501(c)(3), sometimes called the Johnson Amendment, has provided that in exchange for tax-exempt status, a charitable nonprofit, foundation, or religious organization may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Since 1954, that language has served to protect charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations – and the donating public. It helps to ensure that organizations dedicated to the public good in communities remain above the political fray.

The vast majority of Americans and charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations firmly believe that 501(c)(3) organizations should remain dedicated solely to the public good and should stay away from raw partisan politics. They strongly oppose efforts to remove the longstanding protection in federal law that prevents charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations from engaging in partisan politicking. A poll conducted in March 2017 found that nearly three out of four American voters (72 percent) want to keep current rules protecting 501(c)(3) organizations from the rancor and divisiveness of partisan political activity. A separate survey conducted in February by the National Association of Evangelicals found that 89 percent of pastors oppose the idea of clergy mixing partisan politics and religion by endorsing candidates from the pulpit. These results are consistent with numerous polls conducted over several years.

2017 saw challenges to the Johnson Amendment in the form of Executive Order and proposed federal legislation.  FNA and more than 5,800 nonprofit organizations in all 50 states opposed the changes, which ultimately did not pass.  Why were we opposed?  If enacted, the legislative proposals would politicize charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations, plunging them into the caustic partisanship that bedevils our country. It would hurt the public and damage the capacity of organizations in a wide variety of ways, including this sampling:

  • Eroding missions: When nonprofit board members – and donors – demand that the organization take sides in a local, state, or federal election.
  • Corroding public trust and threatening charitable contributions: When donors demand that the organization endorse certain local, state, or federal candidates – and then they or other donors stop supporting the organization if it remains neutral or supports the other side.
  • Limiting effectiveness: When board members with contrary views demand that the organization endorse opposing candidates, whether business clients, family members, or college friends, creating ill-will and polarizing the board on other unrelated issues.
  • Redirecting resources: Pressure on 501(c)(3) organizations to redirect charitable resources (money, staff time, facilities, member lists, fundraising help – as well as their brand value) to partisan political campaigns.
  • Increasing dark money: Partisan donors start to use charitable nonprofits the same way they have been using some 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations since the Citizens United decision to anonymously funnel money into partisan, election-related activities. But now they would be able to take a tax deduction for purely partisan spending.
  • Eliminating a desired safe refuge: Americans are fed up with hyper-partisanship, and view their houses of worship and charitable nonprofits as safe havens where they can escape the acrimony and division.
    Indeed, the only true beneficiaries of removing the protection would be politicians and paid political consultants.

Those wanting to repeal and weaken the Johnson Amendment assert that requiring nonpartisanship curtails the First Amendment rights of religious leaders. But in truth, leaders of religious and other 501(c)(3) organizations are not silenced today. The Johnson Amendment simply says that if you want the benefits of tax-exempt status and the ability to receive tax-deductible contributions, then you must refrain from partisan politics. Free speech rights are fully available in the following ways:

  • Advocacy and Lobbying: Charitable nonprofits, including churches, and foundations currently advocate every day on issues relevant to their missions and the people they serve. That means preachers can preach from the pulpit on moral and policy issues of the day, such as abortion and immigration, that are hotly debated before legislatures across the country. Nonprofit leaders can and do lobby the government on legislative proposals coming up for votes.
  • Express Personal Views: Individuals with strongly-held partisan views remain free to express their own personal views at the appropriate time and in the appropriate context. They just have to make clear that they aren’t invoking the good name of the charitable organization as the entity making an endorsement or campaign contribution. Importantly, similar bans exist in other settings. Judicial canons prohibit judges from endorsing partisan candidates. Federal and state laws prohibit government employees from endorsing political candidates while on duty and ban even a de minimis use of government resources for partisan campaigns. Likewise, Congress prohibits AmeriCorps and VISTA participants from engaging in partisan activities, and even lobbying, unless they do so on their own initiative and on their own time – which is true of all government contractors, whether for-profit or nonprofit.

Simply put, our society is better today because 501(c)(3) organizations operate as safe havens from caustic partisanship. Americans don’t want to see any part — not even a de minimis amount — of their charitable donations redirected by someone else towards a partisan campaign. Nor do they want to see more anonymous, and in this case tax deductible, dark money flowing into political campaigns. Less still do they want some of the few remaining places where they can escape — their sacred houses of worship — invaded and plunged into the mire and muck of polarizing partisanship.