Cuomo-Backed Bill Strips Political Speech From NY Nonprofits

October 28, 2019 Updated: October 28, 2019

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill into state law Oct. 23 that bars nonprofits from endorsing or opposing political candidates, as part of the Democrats’ ongoing suppression of Empire State nonprofits and watchdog groups.

The state legislation mirrors and codifies the Johnson Amendment, a federal tax-law provision from 1954 that prevents religious organizations and other tax-exempt nonprofits from endorsing, opposing, or contributing financially to the campaigns of candidates for office.

“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,” according to the IRS website. “Violating this prohibition may result in denial or revocation of tax-exempt status and the imposition of certain excise taxes.”

In the 1950s, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, who later became president, took aim at nonprofits that accused him of being soft on communism, Ryan Tucker, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom wrote in an op-ed in the New York Daily News.

To aid his reelection campaign, Johnson pushed through a bill now known as the Johnson Amendment, which prohibited nonprofit groups from advocating for or against political candidates, Tucker wrote.

The Johnson Amendment is “an unconstitutionally vague law,” he wrote. “And vague laws create big problems. People don’t know when they break them and when they don’t, until the government comes knocking at their door.”

For example, the IRS uses a “facts and circumstances” approach to determine when a nonprofit has violated the amendment, issuing guidance that forbids nonprofits from “directly or indirectly” supporting or opposing candidates, without defining what “indirect” participation looks like, Tucker said.

Evangelicals and other people of faith object to the law because it prevents churches—along with other tax-exempt institutions—from political organizing.

Republicans and others “understand the importance of religious organizations and nonprofits, but religious organizations in particular, which is what the Johnson Amendment affects, to have the ability to speak freely, and that they should not live in fear of the IRS,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said previously.

Most groups on the left want to preserve the Johnson Amendment. They claim Republicans want to make churches the new super political action committees.

President Donald Trump has said he would like to see the federal law repealed. “We’re gonna get rid of it,” he said in 2016 on the campaign trail. “I figure it’s the only way I’ll get into heaven,” he quipped.

The United States is “in serious, serious trouble,” Trump also said at the time. “Our media culture often mocks and demeans people of faith,” whose “values of love, charity, and faith built this nation.”

On May 4, 2017, Trump signed Executive Order 13798, which loosened the amendment and took other steps to protect Americans’ fundamental rights of conscience and religious liberty.

Cuomo is going in the opposite direction.

“For too long, we have listened to the Trump administration threaten to remove common sense protections prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from engaging in inappropriate political activities,” the governor said in a statement.

“New Yorkers have a right to free and fair elections, and this law will further protect our democracy from unjustified interferences once and for all.”

Supporters of the new law characterize the free speech restrictions it imposes on churches and nonprofits as “protections.”

“The administration in Washington has repeatedly said they want to repeal these protections, and open the door for big-money donors to launder campaign contributions through churches, mosques, and synagogues,” state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Democrat, said in a statement.

“This would politicize nonprofits, undermining their focus on their primary missions, and damaging public trust in the nonprofit sector,” Krueger said.

Cuomo signed the law after losing a three-year-long court battle over a New York law that would have forced nonprofit watchdog groups to disclose their donors.

U.S. District Judge Denise Cote ruled that the Cuomo-backed law from 2016 would have had a “chilling effect” on free speech and “places a significant burden on the First Amendment.”

“This state law targeted not-for-profit ‘good government’ groups for having the temerity to raise ethics issues and try to get the government to do better. It’s blatantly unconstitutional,” Citizens Union board member Randy Mastro said, according to the New York Post.

Earlier this year, Cuomo proposed requiring any individual or organization spending over $500 in a year on lobbying to register as a lobbyist, lowering the threshold from $5,000, Gotham Gazette previously reported.

The proposal sparked an “outcry from nonprofit leaders and members, among others, who view the legislation as exclusionary of smaller organizations and unincorporated activist groups that do little formal lobbying and cannot afford the labor or time to navigate the state’s complex lobbying regulations,” the news outlet stated.

A letter from 15 New York nonprofits—including The Council of Family and Child Caring Agencies, the Hispanic Federation, Homeless Services United, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Lawyer’s Alliance, the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, and the NYC Immigration Coalition, argued that the proposal would “effectively silence small groups while increasing the influence of big money in government.”

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