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House tax reform proposal politicizes nonprofits


November 30, 2017

A bedrock tenet of effective civic engagement in our country is the right and responsibility to petition government at every level.  Individual citizens, for-profit businesses and nonprofit organizations participate in this fundamental American activity when they advocate for or against issues that impact them. Unlike individuals and some businesses, however, charitable nonprofits must stop short of endorsing political candidates or spending their money on election activities. To do otherwise would be to face the threat of losing their tax exempt status.  Federal legislation is now making its way through Congress to change this. If successful, nonprofit organizations will become another avenue for partisan electioneering and dark money. 

The Johnson Amendment was placed into law in 1954 under President Eisenhower. For more than 60 years this amendment has protected charitable nonprofits, including religious congregations and foundations, from being used inappropriately by politicians, political parties and political operatives who seek contributions, endorsements and favoritism. Right now this provision of federal law is being threatened with repeal through recently-passed tax reform legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The legislation, known as the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, was passed Nov. 16, and creates a giant loophole in the existing ban which prohibits nonprofit organizations, including churches, from politicking and partisan entanglements. 

Organizations that want to engage in partisan political activity are free to do so, but they can’t and shouldn’t receive tax-exempt status from the federal government at the same time.  Politicizing nonprofit organizations, including foundations and houses of worship, is antithetical to how we expect nonprofits and democracy to work. It should alarm every American.  

The bottom line is that repealing the Eisenhower-era Johnson Amendment will legalize the use of tax deductible donations for political activities and erode the confidence that Americans have in nonprofit organizations which do so much to make our communities great places to live, work and raise a family. 


Paul Tuss of Havre serves as executive director of Bear Paw Development Corporation and is co-chair of the Public Policy Council of the Montana Nonprofit Association.


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