The Council on Foundations (CoF), the US association of philanthropic organizations, have condemned President Trump’s executive order to roll back the Johnson amendment and allow religious non-profits the freedom to engage in political affairs.
In a statement, CoF CEO, Vikki Spruill, called the order an ‘unfortunate and misguided step towards unravelling our nation’s critical decades-long history of separating the good work of the charitable sector from electoral politics.’
Since the enactment of the Johnson Amendment in 1954, proposed by Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations have been prohibited from conducting political campaign activities or intervening in elections to public office. 501(c)(3)s are the most common tax-exempt non-profits in the United States and include religious as well as non-religious organizations.
The amendment prevents these institutions from contributing campaign funds, making public statements of position in reference to campaigns, and opposing or endorsing candidates. If an organization violates the law, it risks losing its tax exemption and non-profit status.
President Trump’s order blurs the line between politics and the non-profit sector. According to Spruill, this will have potentially devastating effects on charities, foundations, and non-profits by allowing unlimited and tax deductible money to flow through them and into the political process unchecked.
Trump’s order, however, hasn’t completely repealed the Johnson Amendment. Since it is part of the tax code, it can only be repealed by Congress or struck down in court.
Instead, Trump’s order instructs the Internal Revenue Service [IRS], which regulates the tax-exemption status of non-profits, to ‘not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization’ that endorse or oppose candidates or speak about political affairs.
The Johnson Amendment is still in effect, but it has been weakened as IRS officials now have a choice on whether they enforce the amendment.
Spruill warns that the weakening of the Johnson Amendment risks causing the good work of individuals and foundations to become entangled in electoral politics. ‘If elected leaders in Washington want to change the limits on political donations there are legislative vehicles with which to do that — without compromising the good work of the philanthropic and non-profit sectors.’
For more on CoF’s public policy and advocacy on behalf of foundations, see http://www.cof.org/public-policy