Keep the Johnson Amendment!
Politicians seem to like prayer breakfasts. Makes them look righteous while they scheme to strip senior citizens of their Medicare and Social Security. I would love to see someone sponsor a Rational Thought Breakfast for politicians, but who would show up? In any event, at a recent prayer breakfast Donald Trump railed against the Johnson Amendment and called for its repeal. There’s no talking sense to that miserable excuse for a human being, and so I will direct my comments to the readers of this essay and attempt to explain what the Johnson Amendment is and why its retention is vital to a free, non-theocratic society.
The Johnson Amendment (named for then Senator Lyndon Johnson) is a provision of the Federal Tax Code that prohibits non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing candidates for public office. The Johnson Amendment applies to all tax-exempt, 501(c)(3) organizations, including religious organizations. Those who are calling for its repeal claim that the Johnson Amendment improperly limits free speech on the part of non-profits. This is nonsense, as I will show below. And by the way, I have never heard anyone argue that the Johnson Amendment should be repealed on behalf of secular non-profits. It’s always because of religion.
It is important to keep in mind the fact that the Johnson Amendment does not prevent non-profits (including religious non-profits) from speaking out on issues, even if those issues are politically charged. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have been quite outspoken on issues such as marriage equality and the contraception mandate of the Affordable Care Act (they’re against both, in case you had to ask). And yet, nobody has taken away the Catholic Church’s tax exemption. But the direct endorsement of, or opposition to, a particular political candidacy is forbidden. But even this prohibition does not deprive a non-profit of its free speech rights. If a clergyman uses his/her weekly sermon to urge their congregants to back or oppose a specific candidate, such clergyman will not be arrested or in any way prevented from speaking. The organization for which that clergyman works will simply lose their tax-exempt status, which is as it should be.
501(c)(3) organizations’ exemption from taxation serves two purposes for these groups: it shields them from having to pay most taxes (including corporate income taxes and real estate taxes) and it allows them to receive donations for which their benefactors receive individual tax deductions for themselves. In order to receive this tax exempt status organizations must demonstrate that their work fits into one of the following categories: religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering amateur sports competition or preventing cruelty to children or animals. (There are other exempt categories under other parts of section 501). And so by granting non-profit status to a corporation, the government is in effect subsidizing non-profits in order to further the (assumed) good works that they do.
The purpose of this government subsidy is manifestly NOT to bolster any particular politician’s quest for public office. That’s why contributions to individual candidate’s campaigns or to purely political entities (whether Freedom Works on the right or Move On on the left) are not tax deductible. If such contributions were deductible, it would put taxpayers in the position of subsidizing non-profits’ attempts to influence our electoral process, and really, why should a conservative Republican be expected to have her taxes subsidize a liberal organization’s preferred candidate, or vice versa? If a religious organization wants so badly to endorse a particular candidate, it can. It just can’t use public tax money to do so. And that’s the way it should stay.