The Johnson Amendment was introduced in 1954 to stop nonprofits from endorsing political candidates.
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Viewpoints: A provision that keeps charitable organizations out of political campaigns isn’t broken. Why do some in Congress want to fix it?
In an era of toxic and divisive politics, America’s charitable sector may just be the last bastion of nonpartisanship.
Not surprisingly, an overwhelming majority of voters from across the political spectrum want to keep it that way.
A recent national poll by TargetPoint Consulting found that 72 percent of voters support maintaining the Johnson Amendment, a provision of the federal tax code that prohibits tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from engaging in partisan electoral politics. Sixty-six percent of President Donald Trump voters and 78 percent of Hillary Clinton voters said the ban should stay in place.
These voters understand that in order to address the real-life challenges of everyday Americans, nonprofits must remain above the political fray.
We couldn’t agree more.
Wading into politics would erode your trust
A broad, nationwide coalition of nearly 4,500 charitable nonprofits — including more than 100 Arizona organizations — recently delivered a clear message to Congress: keep partisan politics out of the charitable sector.
The Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship urges lawmakers to oppose efforts to weaken 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.”
We proudly signed the letter on behalf of Arizona’s philanthropic and nonprofit sectors because we agree that allowing charitable organizations to engage in partisan election activities would damage the public trust we hold dear.
We also fear repealing the ban would drain the federal Treasury of precious resources as some taxpayers take deductions for political contributions that would flow through charitable organizations. More anonymous “dark money” being funneled into candidates’ campaigns is literally the last thing America needs.
Religious groups are saying the same thing
Fortunately, we are in good company.
Nearly 100 religious groups also sent members of Congress a separate letter asking them to maintain the ban to protect churches and other religious nonprofits from political pressure.
The law at issue is a provision of section 501 (c) (3) of the Internal Revenue Code that has been on the books since 1954. Named for its sponsor, then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, the statute allows charitable organizations to maintain their tax-exempt status and receive tax-deductible contributions as long as they refrain from engaging in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
It was passed without drama by a Republican-controlled Congress and signed by Republican President Dwight Eisenhower.
A repeal is not about the First Amendment
Now some in Congress want to repeal or weaken the ban in order to invite nonprofit and philanthropic organizations to divert assets away from their charitable missions to support partisan campaigns.
Proponents claim that the current prohibition limits the First Amendment rights of nonprofit and religious leaders. We respectfully disagree. 501 (c) (3) organizations advocate on behalf of their missions and the communities they serve every day. The Johnson Amendment simply asks that nonprofits refrain from endorsing or opposing political candidates in exchange for their tax-exempt status.
MORE: Nonprofits finding common ground amid budget uncertainty
Charitable organizations and foundations already face steep challenges. As local, state and federal governments have cut deeply into the social safety net, they have asked private philanthropy to shoulder an increasing share of society’s burdens.
Arizona’s philanthropic and nonprofit leaders stand ready to work creatively with members of Congress and people of good will to explore innovative solutions to the complex problems facing the communities we jointly serve. But injecting partisanship into the daily activities of mission-driven organizations would take us down a dangerous path where we and a majority of Americans don’t want to go.
When it comes to our political system, there are plenty of broken things that need fixing. The Johnson Amendment isn’t one of them.
Laurie Liles is president and CEO of Arizona Grantmakers Forum, the statewide membership organization serving Arizona’s philanthropic community. Kristen Merrifield is CEO of the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits, an action-oriented group of partners across Arizona.
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