This week or next, before members of Congress leave Washington for August recess and their re-election campaigns, they could decide the fate of attempts to politicize a major segment of the charitable nonprofit community.
The issue is whether the US Senate will agree to undermine the decades-old Johnson Amendment that protects charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations from demands that they participate in political campaigns for or against candidates for public office. The House has passed anti-Johnson Amendment language three times within the past year, including last week. So far, the Senate has said no to politicizing any portion of the charitable sector, but pressure is building to adopt anti-Johnson Amendment language, and election-year politics could prove to be a wild card. That’s why people who care about the integrity and effectiveness of the charitable nonprofit community need to contact their Senators now to say no. (If you’re already committed, visit the National Council of Nonprofits website for contact information and core messages.)
Last Thursday, the majority in the House passed HR 6147, a 457-page spending bill containing language that would effectively block enforcement of the Johnson Amendment against religious organizations for even the most egregious violations—including pouring charitable church assets directly into political campaigns. If the Senate ultimately agrees, perhaps by yielding to the House in conference committee, this radical change would weaponize houses of worship as political entities and allow secret—and suddenly tax-deductible—campaign contributions to be funneled through “churches.”
The news gets worse. Also last week, as NPQ reported, the administration revoked a regulation requiring many non-charitable tax-exempt organizations to disclose their donors to the IRS. As a result, law enforcement will not have access to the identities of people trying to buy elections through tax-exempt entities such as 501c4 social welfare organizations, 501c5 unions, and 501c6 chambers of commerce.
These parallel actions make it impossible for the US House and White House to continue denying their real objective: to politicize the trusted nonprofit community by empowering unlimited and untraceable political money to flow through charitable and other nonprofits to benefit partisan special interests.
Charitable nonprofits do not exist to launder political money; we are here to solve problems in our communities. The collateral damage caused by these governmental actions would be devastating to the reputations of charitable nonprofits, even when they refuse to engage in partisan politicking.
What makes these controversial actions even more offensive is that the politicians and monied interests trying to destroy this longstanding protection have attempted to disguise the truth from us by claiming with a straight face that they are acting in the name of free speech and religious liberty. In reality, their actions will just make it easier to rig elections by cloaking the identify of those seeking to manipulate our elections and democracy.
But don’t take my word for it; compare what they claim versus the facts:
What They Claim
They claim that current law restricts pastors’ free speech by not letting them discuss from the pulpit issues of the day like abortion, same-sex marriage, and gun rights, but…
The IRS has issued guidance making it crystal clear that religious leaders can talk about issues of the day from the pulpit.
The language they seek to repeal doesn’t say anything about issues of the day, just that Section 501(c)(3) organizations, to remain eligible to receive tax deductible donations, may “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.”
They claim they are acting on behalf of houses of worship, so preachers can endorse or oppose political candidates from the pulpit, but…
Every religious denomination on record actively opposes this radical change. The politicians voting for it have ignored that not a single religious denomination has taken an organizational position in favor of this legislation!
100+ denominations and major religious organizations signed a joint letter telling Congress they “strongly oppose any effort to weaken or eliminate protections that prohibit…houses of worship from endorsing or opposing political candidates” because, among other things, “people of faith do not want partisan political fights infiltrating their houses of worship” and “current law protects the integrity [and independence] of houses of worship.”
4,500+ faith leaders signed a Faith Voices letter to Congress declaring they “strongly opposed any repeal or weakening of the Johnson Amendment” because, among other things, “engaging in partisan politics and issuing endorsements would be highly divisive and have a detrimental impact on congregational unity and civil discourse,” “faith leaders are called to speak truth to power, and we cannot do so if we are merely cogs in partisan political machines,” and “current law respects this independence and strikes the right balance: houses of worship that enjoy favored tax-exempt status may engage in advocacy to address moral and political issues, but they cannot tell people who to vote for or against.”
They claim they just want preachers to endorse or oppose political candidates from the pulpit and no money would change hands, and in other settings they claim they want to balance the federal budget, but…
This radical change would make the federal deficit billions of dollars worse, plus allow billions of dollars of secret campaign contributions to be funneled through churches. The politicians voting for it have ignored the $2.1 billion price tag to American taxpayers computed by Congress’ nonpartisan staff tasked with forecasting the costs of proposed legislation (Joint Committee on Taxation), who testified that weakening the Johnson Amendment would incentivize partisan political donors to divert making campaign contributions (currently non-tax deductible) to newly-politicized houses of worship in order—for the first time in history—to claim a tax deduction for dollars spent to influence elections. That $2.1 billion is just a fraction (22–37 percent tax brackets) of the roughly $6 to $8 billion that would be redirected to newly-politicized houses of worship to spend to influence elections.
Back to the Present-Day Threats
The House passed its version of the spending bill with the harmful language; the Senate is scheduled to take up its own version this week. So far, the harmful language has not been added to the Senate bill, and Senators say they are trying to avoid controversial, poison-pill riders such as the anti-Johnson Amendment language. But we all know that what’s considered controversial in the halls of Congress depends on whether politicians are hearing from constituents (with an assist from reporters and social media). I know you are busy and don’t want to waste your time. But the truth is, Senators need to hear from you loudly (at least) twice at these known threat points:
- Today, before it comes up on the Senate floor, so they know to guard against anyone trying to slip in the harmful language at this stage; AND
- Very soon (timing still undetermined)—because the House and Senate bills likely will differ on multiple issues, a conference committee from the House and Senate will be appointed to iron out differences. Senators will need to hear from you again to keep the House’s harmful language from being tacked onto the bill.
The message both times will be that you strongly oppose and expect them to stop this dangerous and controversial language. Please, for the sake of our missions, our sector, and the people we serve, call and tweet your Senators today.
Remember: Just as elections have consequences when people don’t vote, policymaking has consequences when constituents remain silent.