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Keep Politics Out of Philanthropy: Leave the Johnson Amendment Alone

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

A year ago at his first National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump vowed to “totally destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which for more than 60 years has kept partisan politics out of the charitable sector. With this year’s National Prayer Breakfast being held tomorrow, United Philanthropy Forum believes it is important to restate our strong support for the continued full enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. This important law prohibits 501(c)(3) charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates and engaging in partisan campaign activities—but it does nothing to prevent religious organizations and other public charities from continuing to speak out on issues as they wish.

The Forum represents 67 regional and national philanthropy-serving organizations that collectively comprise more than 7,000 charitable foundations and other grantmaking organizations across the country. These philanthropic institutions, along with all other 501(c)(3) charitable organizations, have operated as nonpartisan organizations for more than six decades. This has enabled them to occupy a trusted and essential space in our civil society.

All charitable nonprofits, including churches and other religious organizations, are already free to speak on important matters of the day and advocate on policy issues and legislation relevant to their mission and important to their clients, members, congregations or communities. The only thing they cannot do, thanks to the Johnson Amendment, is endorse political candidates or fund political campaigns. That is how it should be.

The Forum firmly believes that 501(c)(3) organizations must remain above the political fray, advocating and informing political leaders but not engaging in political activity. Allowing charities to endorse and support political candidates would be tantamount to allowing politicians to use the public’s goodwill towards the charitable sector as a vehicle to advance their own partisan political agendas. This would have the effect of politicizing and thereby erasing the public’s high trust in charities, painting them as partisan organizations rather than the nonpartisan community problem solvers that they are.

Can you imagine the members of the board of directors of, say, a homeless shelter suddenly being pressured by people in their community to endorse and financially support politicians from different political parties for various political races all throughout the year, every year? Or a food bank finding itself serving as the go-between to funnel campaign contributions from political donors to political candidates, so that the donors’ names don’t have to be disclosed and they can get a charitable deduction to boot? We do not believe anyone will win if potentially millions of dollars are moved from doing vital charitable work in our communities to funding political campaigns and candidates, and if political campaign expenditures are treated as charitable donations.

The Forum is not alone in this position, as reflected in the Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship signed by the Forum and more than 5,500 other organizations in all 50 states, in the Faith Voices letter signed by more than 4,200 faith leaders, in the separate letter signed by more than 100 denominations and major religious organizations, and another letter from the law enforcement community, as well as polls showing that 72 percent of the public support keeping the Johnson Amendment in place and that nearly 90 percent of evangelical pastors say it is wrong for preachers to endorse political candidates from the pulpit. Today, the Forum is one of nearly 150 national organizations that sent a joint letter to the leadership of the Committees on Appropriation for both the House and Senate to express our strong opposition to the inclusion of anti-Johnson Amendment language in spending bills that Congress will soon be considering.

Over the past year, our resolve on this position has only grown stronger. We urge all policymakers to reject any proposal to inject partisan politics into our sector. It will undermine the public trust in charities and make it much more difficult for them to do their important charitable work in our communities.

David Biemesderfer
President & CEO
United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer

Find out more about the Johnson Amendment