What is the Johnson Amendment?
The Johnson Amendment is under threat. This important legislation dates back to 1954 and aims to keep politics out of nonprofit advocacy. Named for its sponsor, then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 501(c)(3) organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization in the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches.
Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code expressly directs that charities and foundations shall “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.”
Who is trying to repeal the Johnson Amendment?
Recent efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment have been advanced by conservative groups that favor a greater role for religion in the public space, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, that have long sought to repeal the amendment, arguing that it restricts free speech by censoring the content of a pastor’s sermon.
Overturning the law, however, would also have major implications for campaign finance. If churches or clergy are allowed to participate in political campaigns, tax-free donations to the churches could go to support a political candidate. Religious organizations could become bigger money players in politics. Repeal has been criticized because churches have fewer reporting requirements than other non-profit organizations, and because it would effectively make political contributions tax-deductible.
Momentum is building to repeal the Johnson Amendment. At a recent prayer breakfast, President Donald Trump came out publicly in support of legislation “to destroy” the IRS regulation, although there is a difference between versions proposed by Rep. Walter Jones (H.R. 172), and by Sen. James Lankford (S.264) and Reps. Steve Scalise and Jody Hice (H.R. 781).
- H.R.172 – To restore the Free Speech and First Amendment rights of churches and exempt organizations by repealing the 1954 Johnson Amendment - This version simply proposes to repeal the Johnson Amendment.
- S. 264 & HR 781 – The Free Speech Fairness Act – The House and Senate versions of this legislation are the same and seek to amend the IRS code of 1986 “to allow charitable organizations to make statements relating to political campaigns if such statements are made in the ordinary course of carrying out its tax exempt purpose
Why oppose repeal or modification of the Johnson Amendment?
National nonprofit advocacy organizations such as The National Council of Nonprofits (Council of Nonprofits) and Independent Sector are announcing strong opposition to repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
Stand with these organizations to prevent nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates per the IRS tax code. Here’s why:
- The Johnson Amendment does not restrict church leaders from speaking out on issues of concern to them. It prevents them from endorsing or opposing political candidates.
- Vermont’s 3500+ public charities provide essential services, and serve the citizens of our state through non-partisan work. They are part of a larger social economy designed to improve the well-being of our people, our communities and environment. This work impacts every single resident of Vermont and is made possible through meaningful non-partisan collaboration with many local, regional and state leaders.
- If individual organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are, it will diminish the public’s overall trust in the sector and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community. Similarly, if private foundations could contribute to partisan political campaigns, then their resources would be diverted to pay for political ads and political consultants rather than invested in the work of charitable nonprofits advancing their missions to actually help individuals and communities.
- Nonpartisanship also strengthens an organization’s ability to advocate across partisan lines and have access to diverse community leaders and funding sources. Plus, it helps ensure that nonprofits are and remain trusted messengers who can engage underserved populations that campaigns and candidates often miss.
Tim Delaney, President and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, released the following statement:
“Although all of these latest proposals are couched in terms relating to churches, in truth the underlying law is Section 501(c)(3) in the Tax Code, which relates to all charitable nonprofits and foundations. For more than six decades, the law now being attacked has protected charitable nonprofits and foundations from being pressured by politicians and paid political operatives to divert their time and resources away from advancing their missions in local communities. That law has a proven track record of working well to protect against politicization.
“Nonprofits are already free to exercise their First Amendment rights to advocate for their missions. Allowing political operatives to push for endorsements would put nonprofits in a position where they become known as Democratic charities or Republican charities and put missions at risk.
“Furthermore, those who donate to nonprofits want those contributions to go toward advancing the mission, not toward advancing the careers of politicians or lining the pockets of political consultants. Getting involved in supporting or opposing candidates will have a chilling effect on contributions on which many nonprofits rely.”
Where can you learn more?
You can learn more about the effort to repeal the Johnson Amendment and its implications here:
- Losing the Johnson Amendment Would Destroy the Unique Political Role of Nonprofits – Nonprofit Quarterly 2/6/17
- The Johnson Amendment Explained - NY Times 2/2/17
- 2017 Public Policy Agenda - National Council of Nonprofits
- The Power of Nonpartisanship - National Council of Nonprofits
- Video about Nonprofit Advocacy Rights - National Council of Nonprofits
What action(s) can you take?
As the only statewide organization in Vermont dedicated to uniting and strengthening all of the mission-driven organizations that serve the Green Mountain State. Join us in advocating for the Johnson Amendment and a non-partisan nonprofit sector. Because the House Majority Whip sponsored one of the bills now moving through Congress, the legislation is positioned to move quickly.
Let them know why you support a non-partisan nonprofit sector! You voice is show of force in the Statehouse demonstrating to lawmakers, the press and the public that the nonprofit sector is strong and united. Below are strategies for their raising awareness:
- Contact Senator Leahy, Senator Sanders and Representative Welch ASAP – Share the message with them (see below).
- Share this article with your board, staff, volunteers and funders.
- Get Busy on Social Media! Let your friends know you’re coming, become a fan www.facebook.com/CommonGoodVT.org, follow twitter.com/commongoodvt and use the Twitter hashtag #npvt and #vtleg
- Send a press release or Write an Op-Ed notifying the media of your position and the importance of the Johnson Amendment to Vermont’s nonprofit sector! Here is a list of VT MEDIA sources for you to use. Don’t forget to include your local papers, radio stations and public access channels. It all helps to spread the word!
Follow these quick tips for reaching out to your legislators.
- Find them here
- Phone Call Script
- Email Template
- During Your Visit
Phone Call Script
Hello Representative/Senator NAME,
I’m calling to urge you to support the Johnson Amendment and vote no on legislation proposed by Rep. Walter Jones (H.R. 172), and by Sen. James Lankford (S.264) and Reps. Steve Scalise and Jody Hice (H.R. 781)
Please support a non-partisan nonprofit sector and vote no. Thank you for your time and for your service to the State of Vermont!
Dear (Representative/Senator) NAME,
I am [NAME], [TITLE] at [ORG] I’m calling to urge you to support the Johnson Amendment and vote no on legislation proposed by Rep. Walter Jones (H.R. 172), and by Sen. James Lankford (S.264) and Reps. Steve Scalise and Jody Hice (H.R. 781)
Vermont’s nonprofit sector accounts for $6 billion in revenue of the state of Vermont and is a huge contributor to the economy, making up approximately 20% of Vermont’s Gross State Product. Vermont’s 3500+ public charities provide essential services, and serve the citizens of our state through non-partisan work. They are part of a larger social economy designed to improve the well-being of our people, our communities and environment. This work impacts every single resident of Vermont and is made possible through meaningful non-partisan collaboration with many local, regional and state leaders.
If individual organizations came to be regarded as Democratic charities or Republican charities instead of the nonpartisan problem solvers that they are, it would diminish the public’s overall trust in the sector and thus limit the effectiveness of the nonprofit community.
Please support a non-partisan nonprofit sector and vote no. Thank you for your time and for your service!
Sincerely, NAME | TITLE/ORGANIZATION | PHONE | EMAIL
Tips for Speaking to Legislators
- Be prepared, and polite.
- Start by concisely introducing your organization. Include the following information: Who you are/ What your organization does/ What you need from your legislator/ A reference to the fact sheet you have prepared
- Don’t attack the legislator for his/her record on your issue(s), and don’t disparage government or politics.
- Don’t use technical terms or acronyms, unless you are certain that your legislator will understand them.
- If you don’t know the answer to a question, say you’ll find out and get back to him/her – and follow through.
- Before s/he leaves, ask how you can be of help to him/her.
- Thank him/her for his/her time.