Fight to preserve Johnson Amendment continues amid new repeal efforts

The US Capitol Building.
The U.S. Capitol Building. Photo: Phillip Roulain/Pixaby

The nonprofit community is once again ramping up advocacy efforts aimed at encouraging federal lawmakers to preserve the Johnson Amendment amid renewed repeal efforts in Congress. A key provision, buried deep in the House of Representatives version of spending bill H.R. 6147, would block the IRS from penalizing churches that violate this decades-old law and make it impossible to enforce rules that protect the charitable sector from partisan influence.

The Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt organizations from directly or indirectly participating in political activity, has set the nonprofit landscape for more than 60 years. Many leaders of philanthropic and nonprofit organizations worry that weakening or repealing the law could be a fundamental threat to the integrity and independence of the charitable sector.

“We don’t want corrosive partisanship to make us as ineffective as partisan government today,” said Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits.

He explained that the policy rider would make the IRS powerless in enforcing the law against even the most egregious violations, including if houses of worship were to divert tax-deductible charitable contributions into campaign cash to promote or oppose candidates for public office.

The House move is the latest of several attempts in Congress to either weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment. Last fall, efforts to include repeal language in the tax reform bill ultimately were unsuccessful. The Senate passed its version of the spending bill without the harmful language, but Delaney sees the situation as perilous.

“The whole point of politicizing churches, charities, and foundations is to engage more forces in partisan politicking,” he said, “So it’s not surprising that those who want this radical change to longstanding law have been intensifying their efforts to get this done before the midterm elections in November.”

Johnson Amendment Independent Sector cartoon 2017
Johnson Amendment cartoon 2017. Courtesy of Independent Sector

Jeffrey Moore, chief strategy officer for Independent Sector, said supporters of efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment have framed it as a free speech issue, particularly for preachers and other leaders in the evangelical community. But he said only a few well-connected, vocal evangelicals have made the case for pastors being able to freely endorse political candidates from their pulpits. According to a survey of evangelical leaders, nearly 90% do not believe pastors should endorse politicians from the pulpit.

“The Johnson Amendment is the barrier between partisanship and the charitable sector,” Moore said. “Our wide-ranging, bipartisan poll shows us that the American public has a very high degree of trust in the nation’s charities, which is why we need to keep politics out.”

Abolishing the Johnson Amendment would erode this public confidence in nonprofits and could further reduce charitable giving, Moore said.

“People may even question if the charitable deduction tax incentive is in place only to promote untraceable political money to go into the charitable sector,” he said. “It’s a very slippery slope that we absolutely want to avoid.”

Attention now turns to the House-Senate conference committee, where the two versions of the bill will be reconciled. Nonprofit advocacy efforts continue to be aimed at keeping the controversial provision out of the final bill.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has joined thousands of other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations in signing the Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship, which argues for keeping the amendment intact. The broad coalition of organizations offering their support for the amendment also includes: more than 4,000 faith leaders; 100 denominations and major religious organizations; and state officials who are tasked with preventing misuse of charitable assets.