With just days before the Virginia gubernatorial election, prominent Democratic leaders have begun a strong campaign push for fellow Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate, participated in a “Souls to the Polls” campaign push. In addition, Jill Biden has been on the campaign stump for McAuliffe, and former President Barack Obama is expected to be at a campaign rally for McAuliffe on October 23rd.
However, it is a videotape of Vice-President Kamala Harris that was played throughout multiple churches in Virginia last weekend that is raising concerns among the public. On the video, Vice-President Harris is seen urging churchgoers to go participate in early voting. The video has already been broadcast in several churches, and it is expected to be played this upcoming weekend as well.
The churchgoers are asked to go immediately after church services to participate in an early voting drive. In the video, Harris says, “I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment . . .Early voting has already started, and this is the first year that you can vote on Sunday, so please vote after today’s service, and, if you cannot vote today, make a plan to go vote.”
Vice-President Harris’ video being shown in a church setting is shocking for many reasons. One of them is the very location of the broadcast could make the video illegal.
Some legal scholars, including Jonathan Turley, a legal professor at George Washington University Law School, are positing that the video could violate the Johnson Amendment. The Johnson Amendment, which was written into law during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, states that tax-exempt groups – primarily churches – 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.”
Turley isn’t the only legal scholar bringing attention to Harris’ video and its placement for broadcast in primarily African American churches in Virginia. Other lawyers are saying that it violates the Internal Revenue Service rules for tax-exempt churches under Section 501(c)3 of the IRS code.
However, there are those who say this isn’t a violation of the Johnson Act. Jan Baran, a partner at Holtzman Vogel Baran Torchinsky & Josefiak PLLC, told Fox News anchors that the video may not violate the statute. “This (the Johnson Amendment) assumes the church is speaking. Are the pastors making the statements or Harris?”
In a debate with Turley, Baran posed that since it is Harris on the video and it’s not the actual pastor of the church speaking, the video may be appropriate. However, Turley rebutted the idea. According to Turley, “(The statute) includes participating and specifically references publishing or distributing statements. Moreover, the church speaks by featuring the video, particularly knowing in advance (as in this case) that the video will be calling for the faithful to vote for McAuliffe. It is actively seeking to distribute that message to the faithful.”
An anonymous lawyer spoke with Fox News anchors, and the attorney agreed that the video “does likely violate the Johnson Amendment.”
The lawyer told Fox that if Kamala Harris was indeed endorsing one particular candidate, and “churches are showing this” video during the service time, “it would be a pretty clear violation of the Johnson Amendment.”
However, even if the churches did violate the statute, there is no clear sign that any of the churches will be penalized in any way for showing the video. In the past, the IRS has not gone after churches even with proven violations. Furthermore, the anonymous lawyer told Fox that it is unlikely the Biden Administration would punish these churches simply because President Biden himself has endorsed McAuliffe.
While some aren’t completely sure if churches have begun airing the video, the New York Post published an article stating that hundreds of churches had already played the video on the weekend of October 17, 2021. The video was slated to be played on October 23 and November 2 as well in churches across Virginia.