27 March 2017

Reviewing the Debate Over the Johnson Amendment

President Donald Trump made headlines in February, particularly in the nonprofit sector, when he announced his desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment at the National Prayer Breakfast.

It was the great Thomas Jefferson who said, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.”  Jefferson asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Among those freedoms is the right to worship according to our own beliefs. That is why I will get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment and allow our representatives of faith to speak freely and without fear of retribution.  I will do that – remember.

The proposed repeal was among the most intensely-discussed topics at last week’s ACR Summit for Leaders, which is why we wanted to briefly examine the arguments in the debate.

What is the Johnson Amendment?

The Johnson Amendment was added to the tax code in 1954 and is named for then-U.S Senator Lyndon B. Johnson (D-Texas). It regulates what tax-exempt organizations, including churches, can do in the political arena. According to the IRS,  501(c)(3) organizations “are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” The loss of tax-exempt status can be a punishment for violating the Johnson Amendment.

Argument of those Supporting Repeal

Many faith-based organizations argue the amendment stifles free speech and violates the freedom of religion. In their view, this makes the amendment unconstitutional. Organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom believe that the repeal of the Johnson Amendment would restore a faith leader’s right of free speech.

Churches have too long feared the loss of tax-exempt status. Rather than risk confrontation, pastors have self-censored their speech, ignoring blatant immorality in government and foregoing the opportunities to praise moral government leaders. Pastors who long to be relevant to society, to preach the Gospel in a way that has meaning in modern America, often studiously ignore much that goes on in politics lest they draw attention of the IRS.

Alliance Defending Freedom believes that the IRS restriction on religious expression from the pulpit is unconstitutional. After 60-plus years of threats and intimidation, churches should reclaim the expressive rights guaranteed to them in the United States Constitution.

Argument of those Opposed to Repeal

Those who oppose repeal argue that introducing a focus on partisan electoral politics falls short of the primary purpose of tax-exempt organizations and reduces the services they can offer to civil society. It may also make charities and churches another avenue for political spending. In a joint editorial in The Hill, Vicki Spruill, president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, and Tim Delaney, president and CEO of the National Council of Nonprofits, write:

Our society is better today because 501(c)(3) organizations operate as safe havens from the caustic partisanship that currently bedevils our country. People come together through nonprofits to solve community problems rather than be subjected to the rancorous and divisive partisanship that is ripping America apart.

Yet, currently pending bills would repeal or significantly weaken the Johnson Amendment’s longstanding protections by inviting heretofore nonpartisan charitable and philanthropic organizations to endorse or oppose candidates for elected office and divert some amount of their assets away from their missions to instead support partisan campaigns.

This debate is not going away and we will further examine this topic in greater detail in the near future. We encourage you to check back for more updates.