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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Charitable, This Isn’t

Red flags color Trump, GOP backdoor effort to weaken Johnson Amendment

The Columbian
Published: July 29, 2018, 6:03am

If President Trump and members of Congress wish to undermine the long-standing Johnson Amendment and politicize nonprofit organizations, they should be willing to hold a robust debate in the public eye. Instead, they have buried the idea in a funding measure for the Internal Revenue Service, trying a backdoor approach to the controversial effort.

As Washington Nonprofits, an umbrella organization in the state, wrote to Congressional representatives: “Weakening the Johnson Amendment would be a major mistake. The law is a vital shield that allows nonprofits to focus on their missions instead of diverting their time or charitable resources to support or oppose candidates for public office.”

The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a funding bill that prevents the IRS from revoking the tax-exempt status of churches that back political candidates, unless removing the status is specifically approved by the agency’s commissioner. The bill was approved 217-199 (Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted in favor) and is expected to face a difficult fight in the Senate.

For more than six decades, the 1954 Johnson Amendment (named for then-Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson) has effectively drawn a line between state and church, as well as other charitable organizations. It prevents nonprofits from supporting or opposing political candidates if the organization desires to maintain its tax-exempt status.

President Trump has joined a chorus of conservatives in saying the provision inhibits free speech, and he has vowed to “totally destroy” the law. Last year, the president signed an executive order he claimed abolished the Johnson Amendment, but in truth it had no impact on the law. Republicans then included an attempt to overturn the law in last year’s tax bill before dropping the idea. Now they have employed subterfuge in an appropriations bill rather than facing the matter head-on.

Abolishing the Johnson Amendment would be problematic for several reasons. It would turn charitable organizations into political bodies, inducing benefactors to target donations based upon a group’s political activity rather than its social services. It would increase the amount of “dark money” flowing into politics, with donors exchanging cash for influence without accountability. It would allow what are essentially campaign donations to be funneled through churches and other nonprofits. And it would harm nonprofits that prefer to remain true to their mission rather than becoming engaged in politics.

As Tim Delaney, head of the National Council of Nonprofits, said: “It’s now impossible for Congress and the White House to deny their objective: to politicize the trusted charitable nonprofit community by authorizing unlimited, unfettered and untraceable political money to flow through the nonprofit sector to benefit partisan special interests.”

Delaney’s organization also claims: “The politicians voting for it have ignored that not a single religious denomination has taken an organizational position in favor of this legislation.”

In truth, the Johnson Amendment does nothing to limit speech; advocates are free to donate to any number of political organizations, and pastors are free to weigh in on the issues of the day from the pulpit. Attempts to undermine the law amount to straw man arguments designed to politicize nonprofits.

At a time when seemingly every facet of American society of is politicized, House Republicans should be chastised for surreptitiously attempting to add charities to the list.