Written by Jane C. Simons
GRAND RAPIDS — The proposal by a small contingent of Evangelical Christian churches to allow tax-exempt organizations to campaign on behalf of political candidates has sent shock waves through the nonprofit industry.
Executives at a broad range of nonprofits, foundations and industry associations, including dozens from Michigan, are closely watching the push to repeal what’s known as the Johnson Amendment, which took effect in 1954. It bars nonprofits, churches and other tax-exempt organizations from directly or indirectly getting involved in the political process.
“The repealing of this amendment adversely impacts the whole premise of what nonprofits are formed to do,” said Donna Murray-Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Nonprofit Association. “They are mission-driven and have a purpose.
“The sources of revenue nonprofits receive come in the form of grants so if a nonprofit is receiving grants from a foundation and a member of that foundation publicly provided support to a candidate, how might that adversely impact them from moving away from the mission and intent of the funders?”
This scenario is one of many that nonprofit leaders are contemplating.
The Johnson Amendment, named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson who introduced it, came about because a rival used the backing of nonprofit groups to run a campaign against Johnson by suggesting that he was a communist.
“There’s been a group pushing for the repeal or changing of the law since 2008,” said David Thompson, vice president of public policy for the National Council of Nonprofits.
That group, the Alliance for Defending Freedom (ADF) based in Flagstaff, Ariz., introduced Pulpit Freedom Sunday in 2008, which became an annual initiative for the organization.
“Basically pastors endorse a candidate. Their remarks are videotaped and sent to the IRS to be challenged,” Thompson said. “The alternative is to revise or repeal the amendment through legislation.”
Daniel Billingsley, vice president of external affairs at Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits, said there have been three-dozen instances of the IRS investigating a church or nonprofit for violating the Johnson Amendment.
“This is not something common because most nonprofits, congregations and denominations don’t endorse candidates. They have people on both sides of the political aisle,” Billingsley said. “We absolutely do not endorse candidates. We can talk about issues like abortion, family planning or LGBTQ issues all day long. Our line in the sand is endorsements.
“Their philosophy is that everyone should have freedom of speech to endorse whoever they want. As nonprofit organizations, we cannot do that.”
President Trump helped to solidify the ADF’s repeal efforts after vowing to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment in remarks he made in February at the National Prayer Breakfast. Earlier, Trump had asked a group of pastors why they couldn’t make endorsements, and they told him it was because of the current law.
“This all really started during the campaign when Trump was a candidate and started talking about repealing it as a freedom of speech or religious speech issue,” said Joan Bowman, spokesperson for the Michigan Nonprofit Association. “We really didn’t know if it was part of his campaign rhetoric or if it would come to fruition.”
Henry Bogdan, director of public policy at Maryland Nonprofits, said it’s his understanding that while individual bills are being introduced, the larger danger is having the repeal forced through if it’s embedded in a tax package.
“There have been bills introduced since 2000 in the House, and even under Republican control they were bottled up,” Bogdan said. “There are elements of the charitable and religious community that want to be able to do more and speak their mind. But they’ve never been seen as serious threats.
“When you have a president who speaks directly to this, it makes it something to be much more concerned with.”
That concern prompted more than 4,000 nonprofits to sign off on a 52-page letter in opposition to the repeal that was sent to President Trump last month.
“Our message is that it’s not just religion, it’s the broader nonprofit community,” Thompson said. “Even before that letter came out, a poll showed that 72 percent of the public said ‘don’t even think about touching the Johnson Amendment,’ and 89 percent of Evangelical associations were not taking a position on the legislation.”
While some backers frame the repeal efforts as a religious freedom issue — and some religious leaders think they should be able to say whatever they want to their congregations — there is no carve-out in the amendment specifically for religious institutions.
Bowman said religious organizations and nonprofits can take all the positions they want on issues, but they need to stop short of making endorsements.
“It’s hard to separate issues from candidates, but that’s what we do when we talk about issues and policies — but we don’t get involved with endorsing candidates and electioneering,” she said. “We want people to feel comfortable that their funds are going toward the mission and that we’re not involved in partisan politics.
“We don’t want a homeless shelter or any other nonprofits to be identified as Republican or Democratic.”
Among the scenarios Thompson has been pondering is what happens when a major foundation endorses a candidate and sends a message out to every grantee letting them know.
“Wouldn’t a smart grantee say, ‘Yes, we endorse that person too.’ It’s easy to see why politicians would want this,” Thompson said. “If you had a bad rep on gender issues, wouldn’t you want the YWCA to endorse you?”
This notion of shifting away from what nonprofits are designed to do and moving in another direction remains the overarching concern for Murray-Brown at the Michigan Nonprofit Association.
“The scenarios are endless, and that’s what we’re trying to convey,” she said. “These unintended consequences are so great. It undermines the ability of nonprofit organizations to partner with government to meet those needs. I don’t think that was the administration’s intention. I don’t know how that would be the case.”