Democratic leaders are targeting church goers to get out the vote, endorsing Democratic incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is slightly behind in the polls for the first time after making controversial remarks about parents not having a say in their children’s education.
Some argue the Souls to the Polls campaign violates IRS rules governing tax-exempt entities such as churches.
McAuliffe’s Republican challenger, political newcomer Glenn Youngkin, has slightly pulled ahead of him, according to a recent Trafalgar Group survey of 1,095 likely voters. Youngkin has 48.4% support to McAuliffe’s 47.5%, giving Youngkin a slight lead in the race for the first time.
As part of a Souls to the Polls campaign, Democratic leaders began descending on Virginia churches this week, primarily black churches.
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms visited three Black churches in Richmond on Sunday and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams went to churches with McAuliff, saying that she was the daughter of “not one but two pastors.”
First Lady Jill Biden campaigned for McAuliffe last week, former president Barack Obama this week, and President Joe Biden is planning to visit.
But what has many critics up in arms is a video that was sent to 300 Black churches by Vice President Kamala Harris endorsing McAuliffe. One legal scholar argues that she violated IRS rules and jeopardized the churches’ 501C3 status if they share the video.
CNN reported , “More than 300 Black churches across Virginia will hear from Vice President Kamala Harris between Sunday and election day in a video message that will air during morning services as part of an outreach effort aimed to boost McAuliffe.” The first message was delivered Oct. 17.
In the video, Harris speaks of her own church experience as a child, saying her time in church “taught her it was a ‘sacred responsibility’ to ‘lift up the voices of our community.'” And those voices, she suggests, should vote for McAuliffe.
“I believe that my friend, Terry McAuliffe, is the leader Virginia needs at this moment,” Harris says in the video.
The Souls to the Polls campaign involves block-party-type events featuring top campaign surrogates after church services in neighborhoods near polling locations, designed to drive voter turnout.
But the Johnson Amendment passed by Congress in 1954 bans nonprofit organizations, including churches, “from engaging in any political campaign activity.”
A tax-exempt entity under IRS code 501(c)(3) is one “which 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.”
The IRS states, “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.”
Legal scholar Jonathan Turley argues , “such direct politicking in tax-exempt churches has been unlawful for decades,” citing Section 501(c)3 of the IRS tax code.
“The IRS makes clear that such violations will not be tolerated,” he said. “The agency warns that tax-exempt groups ‘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.’”
He also points out that the churches airing the videos could lose their tax-exempt status at worst, and at best are hypocritical.
“What is most hypocritical is that the Democrats used the opposition to the Johnson Amendment by former President Donald Trump as a rallying cry in the last election,” he argues.
The criticism of Harris and others comes after a formal complaint was filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington against White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki for allegedly violating the Hatch Act after she responded to a question about the Virginia gubernatorial race in favor of McAuliffe or of Democrats campaigning in churches.
The IRS has not issued a statement on Harris’ video.