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Policy Issue: Johnson Amendment

Publication date: 
March, 2017
Johnson Amendment

For more than 60 years, the Johnson Amendment has kept partisan politics out of the charitable sector by prohibiting 501(c)(3) charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates and engaging in partisan campaign activities.

Importantly, the Johnson Amendment does not prevent religious organizations and other tax-exempt organizations from continuing to speak out on issues as they wish. Private foundations, while barred from most lobbying activities, are free to engage in public debates, promote public education efforts, and fund a wide range of issue-focused activities. Charitable nonprofits, including religious organizations, are free to speak on important matters of the day and advocate on public policy issues and legislation relevant to their mission and important to their clients, members or communities.

But speaking out and engaging in issue advocacy is an entirely different matter than endorsing political candidates or funding political campaigns. 501(c)(3) organizations should remain above the political fray, advocating and informing leaders but not engaging in political activity. Allowing charities to endorse and support political candidates is 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.

We urge all policymakers to reject any proposal to insert partisan politics into our sector, which will ultimately undermine the public trust in charities and will make it much more difficult for them to do their important charitable work in our communities.

Forum's Policy Position

United Philanthropy Forum supports the continued full enforcement of current law that prohibits 501(c)(3) charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates and engaging in partisan campaign activities—also known as the “Johnson Amendment.”

Legislation in the 116th Congress

Free Speech Fairness Act

  • Senator Lankford (R-OK) and Represntative Scalise (R-LA) sponsored the Free Speech Fairness Act in the Senate and House of Representatives, respectively.
  • The legislation seeks to create a “carve-out” for 501(c)(3) organizations to speak about the political process. However, in the current landscape after Citizens United, where political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, these bills could pave the way for additional money to flow from charities into electoral activity and could leave the sector just as vulnerable to abuse and corruption as a complete repeal of the Johnson Amendment.
  • CRS Summary: "This bill permits a tax-exempt organization to make certain statements related to a political campaign without losing its tax-exempt status. An organization may not lose its tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code or be deemed to have participated in, or intervened in any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office, solely because of the content of any statement that (1) is made in the ordinary course of the organization's regular and customary activities in carrying out its exempt purpose, and (2) results in the organization incurring not more than de minimis incremental expenses."
  • Consistent with the Forum's policy position, the Forum opposes the Free Speech Fairness Act any other attempts to weaken the Johnson Amendment. 
Colleague Perspectives

Read the perspectives of the Forum’s colleague organizations on this issue:

Johnson Amendment News and Resources
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This page includes information provided by the Alliance for Justice, Council on Foundations, Independent Sector and National Council of Nonprofits.