When he was in the Oval Office, former President Donald Trump made repealing the Johnson Amendment one of his first priorities.
The amendment dates to 1954. Then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat, sponsored it to curtail conservative tax-exempt groups from spending on political campaigns to oust liberals like himself.
Trump signed an executive order that affected the law, but did not end it. Trump’s critics claimed he was opening the door for churches and other nonprofit groups to become super PACs by allowing them to blatantly practice politics for one side or the other. As The Washington Post noted in February 2017, “The next president could direct the IRS to enforce it, for example, but churches would be free from worry about their political speech or donations during Trump’s term.”
That didn’t happen. But it’s difficult to see how the “next president” – Joe Biden – would direct the IRS to enforce the law when his administration is busy breaking it.
According to media reports, Vice President Kamala Harris cut a video about the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial race. The clip was circulated to more than 300 predominantly black churches throughout the state.
CNN reported that the video was to air during morning services between Oct. 17 and Nov. 2, which is Election Day in Virginia.
In the video, Harris promotes early voting, which has already started in Virginia.
Yet the rest of the two-minute production is a Harris infomercial to support the campaign of her “friend,” Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee for governor.
“I believe that my friend, Terry McAuliffe, is the leader Virginia needs at this moment,” Harris said in the video.
He “has a long track record of getting things done for the people of Virginia,” she added, and he has a “clear vision of how to rebuild Virginia’s economy for the future.”
After touting McAuliffe’s record on the state economy during his first term as governor, Harris noted, “Virginians, you deserve a leader who has a vision of what is possible and the experience to realize that vision. Terry McAuliffe is that leader.”
In this case, Harris was literally preaching to the (political) choir – which, as vice president, she can do because she is exempt from the federal Hatch Act, which prohibits government officials from engaging in such partisan politics.
The issue, rather, is for the churches.
Explaining the Johnson Amendment, the IRS notes that 501(c)(3) organizations, including charities and churches, are barred “from engaging in any political campaign activity” – except for certain voter-education initiatives.
“To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban,” the IRS says. “The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.”
The agency points out that the law explicitly defines a 501(c)(3) nonprofit as one that “does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public 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,” the IRS says. “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.”
In short, churches in Virginia that played the Harris video would appear to violate the Johnson Amendment, and risk being stripped of their tax-exempt status.
Although the Biden administration has no reservations about targeting its own citizens – think of COVID-19 vaccine mandates, or Pentagon witch hunts for “white supremacists,” or sending federal cops to local school board meetings – we know the reliably Democratic congregants in those 300-plus black churches have nothing to fear.
As the conservative website RedState noted on Sunday, “Harris endorses McAuliffe and spends half the video singing his praises. If that’s not a violation of the Johnson Amendment, then nothing is. And there’s little argument that the church is promoting her message from the pulpit when they are choosing to play the video without a counter from Glenn Youngkin.”
“This would be a national scandal if a Republican down to dogcatcher did it,” RedState added. But, “When it comes to politics, nothing matters anymore. At least, that’s true as long as you are a Democrat. … The rules don’t apply to them. They only apply to you.”
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