CalNonprofits Articles

We are closely watching an emerging issue of serious concern to the nonprofit community that has the potential to destabilize nonprofits — including churches and religious institutions — by removing important laws that protect both nonprofits and the public. President Trump has vowed to “destroy” the Johnson Amendment, which draws a clear line between nonprofits and electioneering.    

The Johnson Amendment (after Lyndon Johnson who introduced it) prohibits 501(c)(3) nonprofits from endorsing or opposing candidates for office and from any other partisan activity. It was passed in 1954 by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican.

Currently, for instance, nonprofits can register voters, but must allow people to register for whichever party (or no party) they wish. Nonprofits can take positions on propositions, but cannot, for instance, endorse either Trump or Clinton for president. 

While the Sacramento Bee notes that some religious conservatives have wanted pastors to be allowed to endorse candidates, polls show  that 80% of Americans think it inappropriate for pastors to endorse candidates from the pulpit. 

We are concerned because having nonprofits and congregations engage in electioneering would confuse the public about the charitable, nonpartisan role of nonprofits. It would allow individuals to pass their political contributions through nonprofits and obtain tax deductions for supporting a political party (currently donations to political parties are not tax-deductible). Nonprofits could be pressured by donors to abandon nonpartisanship and endorse candidates for mayor, state office, etc. Nonprofits could lose our legal and actual stance as benefiting the public, not someone running for office.

We nonprofits are trusted in part because we are resolutely nonpartisan. Those who support our work rely on us to use their donations to help our communities, not engage in electioneering. These proposals would benefit politicians and paid political operatives, not the people and communities we exist as nonprofits to serve.

We will keep you informed about this and other developing federal issues as they relate to nonprofits. Please see “Towards a Strategic Nonprofit Stance Under the Trump Administration” and our 2017 Policy Framework for more on CalNonprofits’ policy viewpoint.

And as always, we're eager to hear your thoughts as we go forward together.


+1 # Pete Manzo 2017-02-09 09:30
Being non-partisan in a pluralistic society is one of the primary positive attributes nonprofits have. Many congregations may lean one way or another (and we all know those congregations that want to be involved politically already are,encouraging members to volunteer, nudge-nudge-win k or even outright endorsements), but there's no reason congregants or undisclosed dark-money donors need to be offered a tax exemption for making a political campaign contribution. It only helps the great majority of nonprofits and clerics to be able to say, "sorry, I can't endorse you, and I can't spend congregation or donors' money on your behalf, the law won't allow it." That's much easier than being besieged by candidates seeking contributions, and having to pick one, tick the others off, or worse, feel like you have to give donor/congregan ts' funds to all of them to keep them evenhanded. This is not at all about really granting more voice or liberty to nonprofits.
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+1 # robert egger 2017-02-03 10:26
Democracy isn't easy. Denying nonprofits the same opportunities as for-profit businesses is the issue. We should vigorously debate all the issues (campaign finance/Citizen s United/church-s tate separation), but don't shut down the dialogue about our role in democracy under the pretext of protecting our "trust".
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0 # Geoff Green 2017-02-03 09:37
Thank you! This statement on the Johnson Amendment is excellent.
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0 # Victoria T. 2017-02-03 09:18
Very glad to hear this. CalNonprofits has been very political the past two years. Happy that you'll be ratcheting that back.
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0 # Joy H. 2017-02-03 09:16
I believe if nonprofit churches want to engage in electioneering, they should become/be treated like c4's, just like other nonprofit that engage in limited electioneering. Their donors don't get tax deductions, but the donors can still give.
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