Article written by Rich Brown

The Johnson Amendment recently surfaced after six decades of quiet slumber. Named for then Senator Lyndon Johnson in 1954, the law prohibits charities from engaging in political activity, defined as advocating for specific candidates or expressing views that clearly support a specific candidate (Johnson had been upset that some church leaders had openly opposed him).

So why has this become an issue now? President Trump, in a nod to religious groups that supported him, recently issued an executive order urging the IRS not to strictly enforce the Johnson Amendment. Democrats were outraged. Never mind that just last year Democrats celebrated President Obama’s executive order aimed at selective enforcement of immigration laws. Republicans too have short memories. Many who now endorse President Trump’s “selective enforcement” surely opposed the practice during Lois Lerner’s tenure as head of the IRS’s tax-exempt division, when conservative organizations were targeted.

Aside from the fact that selective enforcement of the laws, whether by a Democrat or Republican administration, undermines our democracy and the Constitution, the current executive order should be troubling to all who serve in the nonprofit sector.

For six decades 501(c) (3) nonprofit organizations have largely steered clear of politics (those that wish to enter the political thicket form separate organizations for that purpose). We are one of society’s few remaining institutions that for the most part are nonpartisan. If we are to be the “ethical center of society”, as author Doug White has described the nonprofit sector, we would be wise to maintain this tradition.

In the last couple of years the nonpartisan nature of two major institutions – the IRS and the FBI – has been questioned. Both ventured into the political arena, and both have seen their credibility diminished. The nonprofit sector can and should avoid the same fate.

It does not matter that the final version of President Trump’s executive order is watered down from the original. The mere thought that the Johnson Amendment should be selectively enforced is disturbing. If churches or the nonprofit sector writ large want the freedom to voice political opinions, then it should push Congress should repeal the Amendment through the normal legislative process. But the belief here is that the Johnson Amendment has been beneficial to the nonprofit sector in ways perhaps unintended by its author. Enforcement should remain intact.


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