Trump Relaxes 501(c)(3) Political Activity Rules

In an executive order signed earlier this week, President Trump eased restrictions on political activity by churches, charities, and other 501(c)(3) organizations.

President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday that eases restrictions on political activity by churches, charities, and other 501(c)(3) groups.

Marking the National Day of Prayer, Trump’s executive order attempts to neutralize the Johnson Amendment, named for Lyndon Johnson who introduced it in the Senate in 1954. The measure prevents churches and charitable organizations from directly or indirectly participating in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate.

While Trump’s executive action does not change current law, administration officials said Trump will direct the Internal Revenue Service to exercise “maximum enforcement discretion” and not investigate religious leaders and other nonprofit groups that express political views and endorse or oppose political candidates during campaigns.

ASAE is in favor of keeping the Johnson Amendment intact. “Public trust is critical to the credibility and effectiveness of donor-based nonprofits,” said ASAE President and CEO John Graham, FASAE, CAE. “While ASAE is fully supportive and will vigorously defend the First Amendment rights of nonprofit groups to advocate on public policy issues that impact their missions, the Johnson Amendment exists to ensure nonpartisanship in organizations that receive tax-deductible contributions. Opening nonprofits up to partisan politics would undermine their purpose and ability to effectively address community needs.”

Last month, nearly 4,500 nonprofit organizations sent a letter to Congress calling for the preservation of the so-called Johnson Amendment. The letter called 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.”

The president’s executive order also offers a promise to “protect and vigorously promote religious liberty” but does not include controversial language from an earlier draft order that would have allowed individuals and businesses to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.

That original draft order on religious freedom was leaked to the press back in February and would have established broad exemptions for people and businesses to claim religious objections under virtually any circumstance.

Critics of that original draft order, which included ASAE, said the order effectively sanctioned discrimination against the LGBTQ community. The White House shelved the order under protest, and it was reported to be under revision again this week for possible inclusion in the order that Trump signed today.

President Trump prepares to sign the Executive Order on Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty on Thursday. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

Chris Vest, CAE

By Chris Vest, CAE


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