On May 4, President Trump signed an Executive Order declaring the executive branch’s goal to “vigorously enforce Federal law’s robust protections for religious freedom.” Of particular interest to the broad-based charitable community is a provision that purports to make it easier for religious institutions to engage in partisan political speech and electioneering – activities that are prohibited for 501(c)(3) organizations under the “Johnson Amendment.” (Another provision concerns whether insurance companies must cover contraception for individuals if their employers opt out for religious reasons.)
The President’s Executive Order is likely to face legal challenges from a variety of organizations, some of which reportedly are already in the process of preparing their legal filings. But in the meantime, what does it actually say, and what does it mean for 501(c)(3) organizations? Arguably, it says and means both nothing and everything simultaneously.
Proposed “Johnson Amendment” repeal would harm 501(c)(3)s
by Linda M. Czipo
Since 1954, tax law has contained a provision prohibiting 501(c)(3) organizations from directly or indirectly attempting to influence the election or defeat of any candidate for public office. This ban, also known as the Johnson Amendment for its sponsor, then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, applies not only to churches, but to all 501(c)(3) organizations.
In the wake of last week’s 2016 presidential election, there is clearly a high degree of uncertainty, speculation and concern across the country. It would be foolish and presumptuous of me to pretend to have any great wisdom to offer as we embark on this new chapter. But like most everyone else, I’ve certainly given it a lot of deliberation. So I humbly offer a few thoughts, some professional and some personal, as we move forward – with advance apologies that this might be a little disjointed.
On the professional:
The work that non-profits do remains more important than ever.
Non-profits are often the backbone of communities, providing programs and services that make communities good places to visit, live and work; employing members of the community; and providing training and education that helps people find and keep jobs. Non-profits are also often the first, last or only source of help for people in distress.
We’ll know more in the coming weeks as appointments and proposed policies take shape, but one thing is certain: the people that rely on us need our voices, our advocacy, our programs and our protection. This was the case before November 8, and it’s just as true now.
Because of the frightening steps taken by some to exclude certain groups of Americans — minorities and the poor — from voting this election, it’s never been more essential for the leaders of the nation’s nonprofits to urge all Americans to go to the polls.
On November 8 voters across the country get to decide who fills 5,920 state legislative seats along with 93 statewide offices such as governor (12 to be elected), attorney general (10), and secretary of state (eight). Each officeholder can make a significant difference to nonprofits, as can the thousands of local city, county, judicial, school district, and special district officials up for election in November.
Those races are especially important to nonprofits, given the dysfunctional gridlock in Congress. The main policy action affecting the work of nonprofits and foundations will continue to be at the state and local levels. Nonetheless, the mainstream news media will continue to focus on the presidential election and races for 34 U.S. Senate slots and 435 Congressional seats.
What’s at stake for the future of our communities?
While most of the news media coverage has been largely (dare I say overly?) focused on the presidential election that’s over a year away, New Jersey has an important election taking place next week. This post is a plea to put aside the presidential hype for a few days and focus on an election much closer to home.
On November 3, New Jerseyans will go to the polls to elect all 80 members of the General Assembly as well as hundreds of local township officials, board of education representatives and more.
Why should you care more about this – at least right now – than the 2016 race for the highest elected office in the country? Simple: because state and local representatives enact far more legislation than our leaders do in Washington, and these actions affect your everyday life.