My personal political views had very little to do with the things that made me sad throughout the 2016 election season. From all directions, I heard stories of families feuding - or simply not speaking to each other - and folks in serious consideration of ending long-time friendships over political differences.
And I’m not just talking about democrat vs. republican - I’m talking Barry vs. Hilary and their respective supporters waging their own relationship-ending political battles.
I wouldn’t presume to offer a solution to political divisiveness. I believe any such solution will require a generational turnover, and I look forward to the time when young adults insisting on solidarity overcome the bi-partisan gridlock to which we’ve become accustomed.
But I do know this: modern American politics are indisputably divisive, and that’s why they have no place in charitable organizations.
Enter the Johnson Amendment, a sixty-year-old section of federal tax law that prohibits 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from participating in partisan politics.
There are many types of tax-exempt organizations defined by the tax code, but 501(c)(3) organizations are the only ones that can accept donations which are tax-deductible for the donor. There’s a good reason for this: 501(c)(3) organizations must be dedicated to charitable, educational or religious activities which further the greater common good.
So what if we repealed the Johnson Amendment, as some congressional leaders are working to accomplish?
Proponents of the repeal say it will grant free speech to religious leaders (churches are granted 501(c)(3) status, too) by allowing them to publically support partisan candidates or political parties in their sermons. Some congregations might value this change. But even if there wasn’t evidence that some religious groups are already violating the amendment with seemingly zero consequences, we might need more discussion surrounding the appropriateness of political guidance from a spiritual mentor (remind me again how we are supposed to treat church and state?)
I can’t say for sure what would happen if the Johnson Amendment is repealed, but I’ll offer a few hypothetical scenarios that would become not just possible, but I fear very likely:
- A 501(c)(3) nonprofit offering emergency shelter and meals to families in crisis starts to openly support one political party. Some families who desperately need these services stay away from the organization because they don’t feel comfortable in a setting that is publically opposed to their personal political preferences.
- A long-standing board member for an immigrant rights 501(c)(3) lends key insight as a former immigrant and important connections to the communities the organization serves. But the full board of directors votes to endorse a candidate for a local election, a candidate opposed to the political beliefs of the long-standing member, and so they choose to resign their board position.
- A pre-K educational 501(c)(3), offering free programming to children who might not otherwise have access to pre-K education, benefits from a donor who makes regular, significant contributions. The donor feels very strongly about a specific candidate for office, and they decide they will cease donating to the organization unless it will publicly endorse the candidate.
- A nationwide 501(c)(3) with a multi-million dollar annual budget decides to align itself with a political party. It allows donors to contribute thousands of dollars - tax-deductible dollars - to be allocated to supporting the party and its candidates.
CascadiaNow! values the diverse perspectives that make up our bioregional culture and, as a 501(c)(3), we feel our nonpartisanship is vital to our ability to serve all Cascadians. We are proud to have signed on to a Community Letter in Support of Nonpartisanship to help protect the Johnson Amendment.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s the responsibility of 501(c)(3) organizations to further the greater common good - to create positive impacts that make us all a little better off. Is it possible for an organization to choose sides in the political world and still serve everyone? In my limited experience, I have to answer “absolutely not.” Which makes me all the more proud to be part of team that supports keeping politics out of charitable work.