How to save the Johnson Amendment and keep nonprofits nonpartisan

Lyndon B. Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson
Wikipedia, illustration by Zach Williams
Future President Lyndon B. Johnson brokered the Johnson Amendment during his tenure as a U.S. Senator from Texas.

How to save the Johnson Amendment and keep nonprofits nonpartisan

The New York Council on Nonprofits is working on a first-of-its-kind state legislative effort.
May 23, 2018

In February 2017, the Trump Administration made a promise to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment. But the New York Council on Nonprofits is working to defang that promise by instilling first-in-the-nation protections at the state level.

Put forth by Lyndon B. Johnson when he was in Congress, the Johnson Amendment was enacted through the federal tax code in 1954, and its purpose was clear: to keep charitable nonprofits and politics separate. But a loud minority of organizations – primarily southern evangelical churches – have taken umbrage with the amendment claiming it limits free speech. However, when language meant to dismantle the Johnson Amendment was included in the 2017 tax reform bill, a quiet majority spoke up and halted the advance.

Not once, but twice, attempts to dismantle the Johnson Amendment by the current administration were quashed by effective nonprofit advocacy campaigns. Support letters were signed by thousands of nonprofits large and small across the nation including mainline faith-based organizations. Phone calls, emails and letters poured into the state legislative offices to make it abundantly clear that nonpartisanship is a priority for maintaining the integrity of the charitable nonprofit sector.

Unfortunately, the attacks on the Johnson Amendment are not expected to end anytime soon. So, NYCON will continue to defend the Johnson Amendment at the federal level while also working at the state level to fortify its valuable protections. We partnered with state Sen. Michael Ranzenhofer and Assemblywoman Amy Paulin to bring forth a bill that would codify nonprofit nonpartisanship in New York.

The bill would “prohibit nonprofit corporations from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

"The nonprofit world has always been one place where people could escape the quagmire of partisan politics and feel a sense of common purpose, community and connection with others. We must keep it that way."

By modifying New York state Not-for-Profit Corporation Law to mirror the Johnson Amendment, the bill would effectively install protections at the state level should the federal provision ever be dismantled. Should it pass, New York would be the first state in the nation to take such action. The bill is currently in committee.

Our nation is more politically charged than it has been in decades, with divisive partisan tactics causing an uproar on all sides. Thanks to the Johnson Amendment, charitable nonprofits are protected from the melee. This protection is vital to ensuring that nonprofits stay focused on their mission and do not become political tools. As a sector, we thrive on integrity and the trust of the public. It’s why we feel so uncomfortable when one of our own is held up under the community spotlight for poor conduct.

People look to nonprofits to add quality to their lives. They volunteer and donate when they want to feed their souls and their sense of purpose. They attend religious services when they seek inspiration. They visit museums and art galleries when they want to connect emotionally with their sense of identity and culture. When tragedy strikes, people give blood, donate clothes, serve food, rescue animals, plant trees and contribute their hard-earned money without a hidden political agenda. The nonprofit world has always been one place where people could escape the quagmire of partisan politics and feel a sense of common purpose, community and connection with others. We must keep it that way.

The loss of the Johnson Amendment would change that and have a dramatic, harmful impact on our social and community fabric. Large national nonprofits could theoretically be turned into super PACs with candidates writing off “donations” to their own campaigns. Political money would be harder to follow making accurate campaign reporting more difficult. And the public, already fatigued by information overload, would now be forced to try and rectify a nonprofit’s political leanings with their own.

We have to protect the nonpartisan nature of nonprofits to preserve the sector’s integrity. We hope that others will sign on to support this bill and help NYCON lay the groundwork for legislation that could be replicated state by state across the nation.

Emily Cote
Emily Cote
is vice president of communications and engagement with the New York Council of Nonprofits
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