In 2017, President Trump used his National Prayer Breakfast appearance to attack the Johnson Amendment. On the occasion of the 2019 breakfast and the new session of Congress, People For the American Way, PFAW’s African American Ministers In Action, and allied organizations once again defended this decades-old law that helps keep politics from overtaking the pulpit by prohibiting churches and other nonprofits from getting directly involved with political campaigns while still maintaining critical free speech rights:
Dear Chairman Grassley and Chairman Neal:
Congratulations on your respective chairmanships of the Senate Finance Committee and House Ways and Means Committee. As you lead your committees, we urge you to protect and maintain the Johnson Amendment, which is the longstanding tax law provision that safeguards the integrity and independence of our nation’s charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations by ensuring they do not endorse or oppose candidates for public office. The Johnson Amendment protects the right of these organizations to speak out about public policy and social issues while at the same time, ensuring they are not pressured by political candidates and campaigns to take a side in divisive partisan elections.
Under the current law, which has been in place for more than six decades, tax-exempt organizations have enjoyed and exercised robust free speech rights and can speak out on any issues that they see as important. They can engage in public debate, and even, with a few boundaries, lobby on specific legislation. Moreover, in the election arena, they can—on a nonpartisan basis—host candidate forums, hold voter registration drives, encourage people to vote, help transport people to the polls, and invite candidates to speak. They simply cannot endorse or oppose candidates for public office and maintain their special tax-exempt status.
Weakening or repealing the current law would allow politicians and others seeking political power to pressure churches and charities for endorsements, dividing congregations and communities, and open them up to the flow of secret money. Americans do not want our charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics.
The vast majority of charitable nonprofits, houses of worship, and foundations support keeping the Johnson Amendment as is because it protects all of us from politicians’ and donors’ demands for partisan endorsements and from the diversion of charitable assets to campaign coffers. Indeed, opposition to the repeal or weakening of the Johnson Amendment is overwhelming: 106 religious and denominational organizations,1 more than 5,800 charitable nonprofit organizations,2 more than 4,600 faith leaders,3 and state charities officials4 have all written to Congress to urge it to protect the Johnson Amendment.
Despite Americans’ strong support for the law,5 we have seen repeated attempts in the previous Congress to undermine the Johnson Amendment. In addition to stand-alone legislation introduced to fully repeal or severely weaken the Johnson Amendment, provisions to weaken the Johnson Amendment have been included in House versions of appropriations bills and tax packages. Yet, repealing the Johnson Amendment is not just bad policy; it would also come at a high cost to the American taxpayer. In fact, the Joint Committee on Taxation concluded that weakening the Johnson Amendment would cost the government $7.7 billion over ten years as donors shift their donations from political organizations to tax-exempt organizations.6
As a new Congress begins, we urge you to uphold the Johnson Amendment and reject legislation that would compromise the integrity of our nation’s houses of worship and other charitable nonprofits.
We plan to reissue this letter as developments warrant:
- 4/25/19: Sent to House and Senate appropriators regarding the FY20 Financial Services & General Government bill