No matter how you may personally feel about him, Donald Trump, our current president, is nothing if not a disruptive force in our society. In February at the National Prayer Breakfast, President Trump promised to “get rid of and totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.”
The Johnson Amendment is that portion of our tax laws which prohibits religious leaders and nonprofit institutions from becoming overly involved with politics. If 501( c)3 nonprofits use between 5 and 20 percent of their income to influence candidates and elections, they run the risk of having their organization audited and possibly denied their nonprofit status. When Mr. Trump spoke up about his concerns that the amendment was abridging our country’s freedom of religion, he started a maelstrom of controversy and heated debates.
NPR wrote an article that succinctly put the controversy into perspective. The legislation was written in 1954 by then Senator Lyndon Johnson, to prohibit nonprofits exempt from taxation, to directly or indirectly participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. It does not, however, prohibit all types of political activity in churches. Religious leaders are free to preach on social and political issues (as are any nonprofit leaders), or issue guides and other information for voters. And most importantly, the repeal of the Johnson Amendment wasn’t intended to extend more freedoms of speech to religious leaders, but to tap into their wallets for political purposes.
In a recent article in Nonprofit Colorado, CNA’s president, Renny Fagan, wrote that “more than 4,500 organizations sent a community letter to Congress opposing repealing or weakening the Johnson Amendment.” The letter clarifies the idea that this legislation “shields the entire 501(c)3 community against the rancor of partisan politics so the charitable community can be a safe haven where individuals of all beliefs come together to solve community problems free from partisan divisions.”
In a separate article in Nonprofit Colorado, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper wrote, “Through cross-sector partnerships and by advocating for policy changes, nonprofit leaders can leverage strategic resources and increase their impact. …Nonprofits have deep knowledge of community dynamics that are useful to public policy makers.” This lobbying ability is not at all prohibited by any IRS taxation legislation.
In the end, on May 4th, President Trump’s Executive Religious Freedom Order became, according to the Civil Liberties Union, little more than a photo opp in the Rose Garden. No significant changes were made to the Johnson Amendment. Mr. Trump succeeded in disrupting any complacency the nonprofit community may have had with regard to finance and politics, and forced us all to reflect on what principles are important in our giving community.