To a roomful of Christian “values voters” in September, Donald Trump joked that repealing the so-called Johnson Amendment was his only hope for getting into heaven. Non- profit leaders are about to find out how badly he wants to walk through those pearly gates.
The amendment, a change in the tax code enacted in 1954 at
the urging of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, prohibits tax-exempt
organizations from endorsing or campaigning for political
candidates. It’s why a priest, rabbi, or imam is permitted
to tell a congregation to vote but not who or what to vote
Many conservative church leaders say the law impinges on free expression and should be amended to
allow for minimal political speech in the course of normal activities, like sermons. Opponents of changing the
law say doing so would dramatically alter how nonprofits
raise and spend money and lead to a proliferation of churches
and 501(c)( 3) groups being created with purely political aims.
It’s difficult to gauge how hard the president-elect will push for
removing or changing the law, but it was a key promise he made to
win over the Christian right. “I think [Mr. Trump] takes it seriously,”
said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the
Separation of Church and State, who opposes amending the law.
Mr. Lynn noted that a bill entitled the Free Speech Fairness Act,
introduced in the House of Representatives in September, would
have allowed churches and charities to engage in political speech
during “ordinary” activities. It attracted few backers, but Mr. Lynn
thinks there remains some latent support in Congress for similar
Some worry that if 501(c)( 3) nonprofits and churches are given
even a little room to be political, they’ll push boundaries and divert
money from their stated missions into partisan campaigning.
“If you make de minimis political activity legal, people are
likely to push it further in ways that we haven’t yet seen,”
says Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the progres-
sive government-accountability group Citizens United
for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
That’s been the experience with 501(c)( 4) “social
welfare” organizations, experts say. These groups,
Should the Johnson Amendment be altered, Mr. Lynn says, char-
ities and churches would be highly attractive to political donors
because their contributions, on top of being anonymous, would
also be tax-deductible — a benefit not currently offered for direct
campaign contributions. It would be particularly hard to track po-
health and financial security, we must not — we cannot — roll
back the clock,” she wrote.
Gutting Obamacare could have a ripple effect, other nonprofit
leaders warned. People whose insurance is dropped would find
it difficult to afford necessities, says Alison Weir, chief of policy
and research for the National Diaper Bank Net work, a group that
works to provide diapers to families in need.
“The fact that diapers are an issue shows that our safety net has
more and more holes in it,” she says.
Steve Taylor, counsel for public policy at United Way Worldwide,
thinks it’s inevitable Obamacare will be scaled back.
“We won’t be able to stop that train, but we may be able to mitigate some of the damage,” he says.
Mr. Taylor also worries about spending cuts, particularly in ear-ly-childhood-education programs.
However, he says lawmakers will start feeling tremendous
pressure from their constituents when they produce actual legis-
lation to reduce spending.
“In the abstract, big across-the-board cuts sound good polit-
ically,” he says. “In application, they can be really hard. When
representatives start working at that local level, they can get
reluctant to actually execute on the cuts.”
Despite tough campaign rhetoric on domestic spending, many
social programs could continue to enjoy strong support from
both parties in Congress, some nonprofit leaders predict. Mark
Shriver, president of the Save the Children Action Network, for
instance, has high praise for Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Repub-
lican. As chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee
that oversees education spending, Mr. Cole helped push for
increased support for pre-kindergarten programs.
“Congressman Cole has been a strong advocate for ear-
ly-childhood education,” Mr. Shriver says. “I hope and trust that
he’s going to continue to invest in that area.”
Groups that support veterans could also see
increased spending — Mr. Trump promised to
boost federal support in that area.
The president-elect has also signaled that
he’d like Congress to pass a broad infrastructure
spending bill to rehabilitate the nation’s bridges,
tunnels, and highways.
Nonprofit leaders think a big transportation
bill, which could gain wide bipartisan support
on Capitol Hill, might offer a tactical opportunity to gain federal support for other priorities.
For instance, Ms. Mickelson believes afford-able-housing language could be tucked into
such a bill.
Still, those opportunities are limited and do
little to assuage budget fears among many nonprofits.
Says Ms. Mickelson: “This is the worst of times
for housing affordability.” — ALEX DANIELS
Limits on Nonprofits’ Political Activities
RELYING ON GOVERNMENT
Money from government — in the form of grants and fees for goods and services — provides
a significant share of revenue for many nonprofits. A sampling, by cause:
SOURCE: The Nonprofit Almanac
11% 14% 15% 37% 47% 22%