Last year, NPQ extensively covered repeated attempts by Congress to repeal and weaken the “Johnson Amendment,” the law that since 1954 has shielded 501c3 organizations from partisan politicking. (Examples of that coverage can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.) The charitable, religious, and philanthropic communities united to defeat those attacks. But the threat has suddenly returned. To get the latest developments, Ruth McCambridge interviewed Tim Delaney, president of the National Council of Nonprofits, which continues to play a leading role in protecting nonprofits and foundations.
Ruth McCambridge: I’m sensing urgency and increased nervousness among nonprofits about a new threat to the Johnson Amendment, but I’m not seeing any legislative language. What’s up?
Tim Delaney: Yes, there is great urgency for nonprofits and foundations to engage immediately. Here’s why: The well-funded forces trying to politicize the 501c3 community against our will learned last year—thanks to engaged advocacy by charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations—that they cannot jam their desires through the process as a free-standing bill. So now they are trying to avoid a straight up-down vote by attaching their anti-Johnson Amendment language to the upcoming spending bill. That bill must pass by March 23rd to keep the federal government from running out of money and shutting down for a third time this year.
This “must-pass” bill is a magnet for policy riders on topics completely unrelated to spending as Representatives, Senators, and lobbyists all feel incredible pressure to attach their pet provisions onto this bill. Right now, as in right now, congressional leaders on both sides are wheeling and dealing trying to find the right combination of dollar amounts and policy riders to shift enough of the complex Rubik’s cube pieces into alignment to enact the “must-pass” spending bill for the rest of fiscal year 2018. We know that the House is pushing to include anti-Johnson Amendment language as a rider.
That underscores the urgency for all who care about charitable, religious, and philanthropic organizations. It’s time to immediately turn up the volume of opposition to the nefarious attempts to politicize 501c3 organizations. If we wait to see the actual legislative language, then it’s too late because a deal has been cut and the bad language inserted.
Ruth: If no legislative language has surfaced yet, which of the various approaches from last year do you think they will try to use this time? Totally repealing it, substantially weakening it, or blocking enforcement of it against just religious institutions?
Tim: On the one hand, it’s unclear at this moment which version they will try to attach. On the other hand, it really doesn’t matter, because each of those approaches would have created the same harm to:
- Individuals, by taking away the safe sanctuary of houses of worship and charitable nonprofits where people can escape the toxic partisanship that bedevils our country;
- Organizations, by diverting attention from missions to promote politicians (which circles back to harm individuals who will be receiving fewer benefits from that mission-related work); and
- Society, by flooding elections with billions of dollars of secret—and deductible –campaign contributions through newly-politicized (and even sham or temporary pop-up) houses of worship and charitable nonprofits.
I can go on and on about the many ways that politicizing nonprofits and foundations would create harm, but it’s probably easiest to look at various ways posted on www.GiveVoice.org.
Ruth: Whoa! Back up. Did you say “billions” with a “b”? And if so, how did you get that huge number?
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Tim: Last year, as the House was looking to tack its anti-Johnson Amendment language onto the tax bill, Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation calculated that, by weakening the Johnson Amendment, the U.S. Treasury would lose $2.1 billion. That’s the amount JCT projected would be diverted from candidate campaign committees to 501c3 organizations because partisans would—for the first time ever—be able to claim tax deductions for their partisan political donations. In other words, partisans would be incentivized to funnel their political contributions through houses of worship and charitable nonprofits.
Ruth: You’ve referred to “forces trying to politicize” nonprofits against our will. We all know that President Trump promised last year to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment,” but who are these other “forces” still agitating to politicize “churches and charities”?
Tim: The forces actively trying to politicize our independent community include:
- Vice President Pence, who declared last week: “In the days ahead, we’ll continue to…free up the pulpits of this country by repealing the Johnson Amendment.”
- House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R‑LA), primary sponsor of a bill to gut the Johnson Amendment, used the National Prayer Breakfast audience of 3,500+ last month to celebrate the House’s passage last year of a bill including repeal language (which was, thankfully, stripped out on the Senate side).
- Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, who in a speech last week called for four things to be done—with this at the top of the list: “The Johnson Amendment has to be totally eliminated.”
- National Religious Broadcasters, which last week adopted a formal resolution calling for the repeal of the Johnson Amendment—which would allow secret political campaign contributions to be funneled to many of its members.
- Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, who now leads the Faith & Freedom Coalition and claims to have activated “hundreds of phone calls” to Congress to gut the Johnson Amendment last December, with “megachurch pastors and leading businessmen reaching out to them, in private meetings, in regular phone calls, in texts.”
- Jerry Falwell, Jr., who after meeting with the President in the White House admitted to Time magazine the “concern that charities would become backdoor ways to donate to political campaigns” and identified as a possible workaround that nonprofits (including houses of worship, and Liberty University, which “has $1.5 billion in reserves”) might be limited on how much they spend: “Maybe 5% or less.”
Ruth: That seems odd—the groups pushing this agenda seem to associate themselves as being religious and speaking for religion, but you didn’t list any religious denominations. Why not?
Tim: Bingo! You nailed it! After those forces have actively pushed their self-serving agenda for more than a year, we don’t know of a single religious denomination that agrees or has stepped forward to call for changing existing law.
In fact, the religious community is uniformly lined up against this radical proposal:
- More than 100 religious and denominational organizations signed a public letter to Congress to “strongly oppose” any changes to the longstanding Johnson Amendment;
- More than 4,300 individual religious leaders signed a similar public letter to Congress declaring they were “strongly opposed” to any effort to repeal or weaken current law; and
- When surveyed, 89 percent of evangelical leaders said they do not think pastors should be endorsing politicians from the pulpit. As one respondent said: “Our focus should be on the gospel. If we begin to endorse candidates, then we are politicizing the Church, diluting our message, and bringing unnecessary division among our people.”
But wait, there’s more! The religious community is not alone in its firm resolve to protect the longstanding law that has shielded 501c3 organizations from the rancor of partisan politicking:
- More than 5,700 charitable nonprofits and foundations have signed the Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship telling Congress they “strongly oppose proposals…repealing or weakening” the Johnson Amendment.
- The state law enforcement officials most familiar with the work of 501c3 organizations sent a letter to Congress to oppose “efforts to repeal or weaken a…provision in federal law…that prohibits 501c3 tax-exempt organizations from endorsing, opposing, or contributing to the campaigns of candidates for public office.”
- Dozens of additional networks of organizations and individual organizations have issued separate statements of support for nonprofit nonpartisanship.
- Hundreds of editorials, letters to the editor, op-eds, news releases, and other resources have been published expressing support for existing law.
Ruth: And I’m proud that NPQ was one of the very first last year to write an editorial supporting the Johnson Amendment and opposing the efforts to politicize our sector. (See here.) So, what can people do?
Tim: Pick up the phone today—or, if you are in or near Washington, visit your Representative and Senators in person. Emails and tweets are nice, but phone calls have the most impact. (We have the phone number and a sample script you can use and build upon.) It will only take three minutes of your time. And, once you’ve made that phone call, tell your co-workers, your board members, your organization’s supporters, people you know at other nonprofits, your friends, and your family. Every phone call makes a difference in protecting the work of nonprofits.