Repeal of the Johnson Amendment: Pros and Cons

President Trump’s commitment to completely repeal the Johnson Amendment was one of his key campaign promises. The Johnson Amendment was introduced in 1954 when Lyndon Johnson was running for re-election to the senate. It was an amendment to Section 501(c)3 of the tax code regarding tax-exempt charitable organizations, religious groups, scientific, literacy, and educational groups. It bars “corporations … organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes” from “participating in, or intervening in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

Reasons against repeal

  • Tax-deductible donations to churches or other nonprofits could be used to campaign for or against specific candidates and issues.
  • Deductibility of contributions and secrecy could motivate donors to switch from super PACs—and from candidates and political parties—to political charities.
  • Allowing nonprofit organizations to function as fundraising machines could drastically change the world of philanthropy and cause the nonprofit sector to change focus away from its core purposes and mission.
  • If nonprofits engage in partisan politics, people might decide which charities to support based on political issues rather than the mission for that nonprofit.
  • When nonprofits are non-partisan, their focus is addressing a wider range of community issues and challenges, free from pressure of party labels. Partisanship could lead to more division at a time when our country is more divided than perhaps any other time in history.

Reasons for repeal

  • Free speech should extend to all Americans, even those who speak from a pulpit or lead a non-profit.
  • The current IRS guideline is vague. No one knows precisely what kind of spoken or written comment on a candidate will draw the attention of the IRS. Even the IRS itself does not clearly describe what would violate the law. Such vagueness chills free speech.
  • A robust civil society and all organizations should be allowed to inform their members regarding issues and candidates that affect them. This leads to more informed voters.
  • People and groups would be free to move donations away from the super PAC and toward political charities.
  • 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations could be permitted to raise funds for partisan political purposes that support the mission of the nonprofit and make political contributions both tax-exempt.

There are compelling reasons on both sides of the issue, however, the National Council of Nonprofits stands opposed to the full repeal of the amendment.