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The Johnson Amendment

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:


The Johnson Amendment is a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits all 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. 501(c)(3) organizations are the most common type of nonprofit organization the United States, ranging from charitable foundations to universities and churches. The amendment is named for then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas. In recent years many Republicans have sought to repeal it, arguing that it restricts the free speech rights of churches and other religious groups.


It seems like the Johnson Amendment is so unconstitutional that it should have disappeared years ago.  I see three major problems:


  1. It is a law that limits religious freedom.

  2. It is a law that limits free speech.

  3. There are a lot of nonprofit organizations, including churches, that actually do promote political candidates.


Article [Amendment] One

Congress shall make no law respect­ing an establishment of religion, or pro­hibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peace­ably to assemble, and to petition the Gov­ernment for a redress of grievances.



Article on Vertical Response  December 2016


“Johnson Amendment” v. Amendment One

I’ve mentioned before that one Sunday after church another parishioner approached me, asking if I would sign a petition for a new law.  I was so glad that she asked me.  I knew about the petition and agreed with its goal.  Then she explained that she could not talk about the petition inside the church building—not even in the parish hall. 
Of course, I wondered what happened to freedom of speech.  I learned that it was modified by the Johnson Amendment.  What is the Johnson Amendment?  I found a brief explanation on Google:
 “The Johnson Amendment refers to a change in the U.S. tax code made in 1954 which prohibited certain tax-exempt organizations from endorsing and opposing political candidates.”[i]
Therefore, the federal government used the tax code to limit free speech.  Let’s look, again, at the first amendment to the Constitution.
“Congress shall make no law respect­ing an establishment of religion, or pro­hibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peace­ably to assemble, and to petition the Gov­ernment for a redress of grievances.” Amendment One
What does this amendment mean?  Exactly what it says!  The Federalist Papers teach us that the United States Constitution is not subtle—it means what it says.
Any law that restricts freedom of speech is unconstitutional.  The Johnson Amendment does not ban speech, but it certainly restricts speech.
The Johnson Amendment also restricts freedom of religion.  I have seen arguments that “political” speech within a church breaks “separation” of church and state, for example,  “Churches Have No Business Speaking in Favor of Political Candidates,”  This is preposterous!  There is no place more appropriate than a church to discuss political issues.  To religious people, every part of our lives is part of our religious beliefs and practices.
Any law that bans talking about and/or endorsing a political candidate or issue within a church building or during a church service is unconstitutional.  Hiding behind a tax code doesn’t make it constitutional.  The First Amendment is very clear that no law can prohibit the free exercise of religion and freedom of speech.


 I can’t close without mentioning that I have seen (on TV) politicians speaking in churches and ministers speaking about political issues in churches.  It seems that the Johnson Amendment is only selectively applied.

I took this explanation off the IRS website:

The Restriction of Political Campaign Intervention by Section 501(c)(3) Tax-Exempt Organizations


Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.

Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.  Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes. 


Certain activities or expenditures may not be prohibited depending on the facts and circumstances.  For example, certain voter education activities (including presenting public forums and publishing voter education guides) conducted in a non-partisan manner do not constitute prohibited political campaign activity. In addition, other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives, would not be prohibited political campaign activity if conducted in a non-partisan manner.


On the other hand, voter education or registration activities with evidence of bias that (a) would favor one candidate over another; (b) oppose a candidate in some manner; or (c) have the effect of favoring a candidate or group of candidates, will constitute prohibited participation or intervention.

Page Last Reviewed or Updated: 13-Sep-2016

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