Catholic bishops have not pushed to end the Johnson amendment, but their religious-freedom campaign has found allies among advocates for repealing this 63-year-old law that bars nonprofit organizations from electoral politics.
Now that there is a real possibility that Congress and President Donald Trump could eliminate the Johnson amendment, religious leaders who have supported or quietly condoned this effort may want to consider the consequences and speak up. They can look to the secular nonprofit world for some guidance on why lifting this restriction would end up hurting them.
The National Council of Nonprofits is one of the major voices against repeal of the law, which bars 501(c)(3) organizations from participating in electoral politics “directly or indirectly.” In April, the council was among 4,500 nonprofits to sign a “community letter” urging congressional leaders to back off from any repeal:
Nonpartisanship is a cornerstone principle that has strengthened the public’s trust of the charitable community. In exchange for enjoying tax-exempt status and the ability to receive tax-deductible contributions, 501(c)(3) organizations – charitable nonprofits, including religious congregations, and foundations – agree to not engage in “any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”
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.
Signers included such charities as the American Red Cross, American Heart Association, the Michael J. Fox Foundation and the League of Women Voters. Some religious organizations joined in, including the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Committee, Catholic Mobilizing Network, Catholic Charities USA and charities offices in eight Catholic dioceses.
Nonetheless, one of the letter’s recipients, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican who includes his Catholic parish in his official bio, slipped a provision into the House-passed tax bill to repeal the amendment. It’s not in the Senate version, at least not yet.