A longstanding rule that bars charitable nonprofits from backing political candidates has faced increasing calls for its repeal to allow churches to take a more active role in election campaigns. But thousands of 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits say such a change would undermine public trust in their organizations.
Currently, 501(c)(3) charitable nonprofits are required by law to stay out of electoral politics. And a whole lot of those organizations would like to keep it that way.
On Tuesday, nearly 4,500 nonprofit organizations sent a letter to Congress calling for the preservation of the so-called Johnson Amendment. The 1954 provision, named for then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, bars charitable nonprofits from taking a stance on political candidates if they wish to maintain their tax-exempt status.
Critics calling for the amendment’s repeal say it infringes nonprofit organizations’ free-speech rights. In February, President Donald Trump said he wanted to “totally destroy” the amendment because it prevents churches from supporting or opposing political candidates.
The letter sent by the organizations [PDF] notes that rolling back the amendment wouldn’t just affect churches. An excerpt:
That provision of law protects the integrity and independence of charitable nonprofits and foundations. It shields the entire 501(c)(3) community against the rancor of partisan politics so the charitable community can be a safe haven where individuals of all beliefs come together to solve community problems free from partisan divisions. It screens out doubts and suspicions regarding ulterior partisan motives of charitable organizations, as undoubtedly would occur if even just a few charitable organizations engaged in partisan politics. Nonpartisan credibility is critical to the ability of 501(c)(3) organizations to work with elected officials of all parties at the local, state, and federal levels to address community needs.
The letter calls on legislators to “join us in opposing efforts to weaken and/or repeal the current law that for six decades has successfully protected the integrity and effectiveness of charitable nonprofits and foundations by keeping them apart from partisan politics.”
In a news release, National Council of Nonprofits President and CEO Tim Delaney emphasized that nonpartisanship helps separate charitable missions from political debate.
“Nonpartisanship is vital to the work of charitable nonprofits,” Delaney said. “It enables organizations to address community challenges and invites the problem-solving skills of all residents, without the distractions of party labels and the divisive partisan politics that currently bedevils our country.”
The signatories noted that public sentiment is largely in their favor on the issue. A recent poll conducted on behalf of Independent Sector found that 72 percent of U.S. voters want to keep the Johnson Amendment in place, with support at 78 percent among Hillary Clinton voters and 66 percent among Trump voters.
In addition to charitable nonprofits at the national and state levels, a number of national associations signed onto the letter, including the American Alliance of Museums, the American Heart Association, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and the Senior Executives Association. Some religious organizations, including the National Council of Churches, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, and Catholic Charities USA, are also among the signatories.