One of the distinguishing features of the charitable nonprofit sector is that it focuses almost exclusively on solving problems in communities — without regard to profit and without regard to partisan politics. Instead of profits, charitable organizations can receive tax-deductible donations. And in exchange for tax exemption and receipt of those donations, charitable nonprofits agree to stay out of partisan politics and focus on their missions. That’s the deal we have with the business community and with taxpayers. Communities in Arizona and across the country are better for it.
All of this could change if some powerful interests have their way in Washington. The President, Vice President and other politicians are calling for repealing or weakening a decades-old law called the Johnson Amendment (www.councilofnonprofits.org/trends-policy-issues/protecting-nonprofit-nonpartisanship). Their argument is that charitable organizations, including houses of worship, and foundations, should be free to endorse or oppose candidates for public office. Two efforts last year failed to change the longstanding law, but another effort passed the House last month and will soon be considered by a House-Senate conference committee.
To say that most organizations covered by the Johnson Amendment oppose changes to the law would be an understatement. The broad charitable community, as evidenced by a community letter signed by 150 Arizona organizations and more than 5,800 nationwide, strongly opposes efforts to undermine the law that protects them from the caustic and corrupting influences of partisan politics. Every religious denomination that has taken a position on the issue — more than 100 — and more than 4,500 faith leaders have come out in support of keeping current law and opposing any and all of the proposals in Congress. Even charity law enforcement officials have declared that weakening the Johnson Amendment “would undermine the charitable sector in many ways and would be bad policy.”
Why are charitable organizations so adamant that the Johnson Amendment stay in place? Because the consequences — intentional and unintentional — would be profoundly destabilizing for the people and communities nonprofits serve. Notably, the proposals to weaken the law would encourage creation of sham organizations, divert contributions from the good works of legitimate nonprofits to fund partisan entities, and bring discredit to the broad charitable nonprofit community. During attempts last year to weaken the Johnson Amendment and politicize the charitable sector, it came out that American taxpayers would lose $2.1 billion in revenue because partisan political donors would start “diverting” $6 billion or more in campaign contributions through newly politicized charitable nonprofits and receive tax deductions for those political contributions for the first time in history. It is also clear that without the Johnson Amendment, nonprofits would be buffeted by demands from politicians and their donors to back candidates or lose donations. Mission would no longer matter as long as the organization’s “politics” were right.
The broad charitable community rejects this jaded and selfish perspective. All 501(c)(3) organizations — charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations — earn their tax-exempt status every day by shepherding tax-deductible contributions to improve our communities, enrich lives and aid those in need. Contrary to the views of politicians and well-funded interest groups, we are effective because we bring people together across party lines to solve problems. The Johnson Amendment is a major reason for our success and must remain in place.
David L. Thompson is vice president of Public Policy for the National Council of Nonprofits, based in Washington, D.C.