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Why we care about the Johnson Amendment

Jamie Cerretti

Over the course of my career in nonprofit operations, I’ve had the opportunity to learn all kinds of things I never thought I would. Although my official title is human resources director, at this point I can also speak at length about interior design, cell phone technology, germ theory, and -- perhaps most importantly -- the United States tax code. And right now, there’s a looming legislative threat that could impact the tax code and open the floodgates to even more unaccountable political spending in our elections -- not to mention threaten the separation of church and state and undermine the trust that donors like you have in organizations like ours.

Corporate Accountability International, like many other social change organizations, is tax exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. For those of you who support us financially, that means you are able to take a tax deduction for your generous contributions. It also means that as an organization, we are prohibited from supporting or opposing candidates for any elected office. That prohibition is a result of the Johnson Amendment, which was enacted in 1954. To put it simply, the Johnson Amendment ensures that charitable giving actually funds charitable organizations -- not partisan political campaigns.

The Johnson Amendment may suddenly sound familiar to you. If so, it’s likely because of the extensive media coverage of this year’s annual National Prayer Breakfast. At this event last month, Donald Trump declared his intention to “get rid of, and totally destroy, the Johnson Amendment.”

Efforts to repeal the Johnson Amendment are not new. Republican legislators have introduced a repeal bill during every Congress for at least a decade.

But repealing the Johnson Amendment completely has serious potential consequences for our political process.  It could open the door for megachurches and religious organizations to funnel money directly into influencing elections, while their donors enjoy a tax deduction and can remain anonymous -- another version of “dark money,” which has warped our democratic process over the last few years. Our friends at Public Citizen released a detailed report on this recently, which explains how the repeal of the Johnson Amendment could create a new flood of unaccountable electoral spending. Repeal would also blur the boundary between the entire charitable sector and partisan electoral politics, which would almost certainly impact the public’s trust in how 501(c)(3) organizations operate. 

Corporate Accountability International’s mission is big: We are advancing systemic change and challenging transnational corporations. We believe in the crucial importance of our democratic institutions and campaign to preserve their integrity. We partner with other organizations, working together to build a movement of people who share our vision of a better world. Our members rely on us to strategize beyond the next electoral cycle, and we know you are already deeply concerned about the amount of secret money pouring into elections.

The Johnson Amendment protects nonprofit organizations like ours from being manipulated for partisan political ends. It helps to ensure that donors are not inadvertently subsidizing candidates for elected office.

That’s why we’ve joined with Public Citizen, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Action on Smoking and Health, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Small Planet Institute, and a wide range of other nonprofit groups to oppose any and all efforts to repeal or alter the Johnson Amendment. This week, the coalition released a letter to Trump demanding that he keep the Johnson Amendment in place.

As we all work together to challenge the Trump administration’s agenda and actions, I hope you’ll join me in taking a quick foray into the tax code -- and take action. Stand alongside us in opposing the repeal of the Johnson Amendment by calling on your elected officials to protect the amendment or writing a letter to the editor of your local paper.  

Jamie Cerretti is the human resources director at Corporate Accountability International.

Photo Credit: Wyoming_Jackrabbit, Flickr, Creative Commons

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