Vice President Kamala Harris is being accused of helping Virginia churches break federal law prohibiting tax-exempt churches from engaging in overt political activity.
What is Harris doing?
More than 300 "black churches" across Virginia will reportedly view a pre-recorded message from Harris over the next several weeks urging them to vote for Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial election.
According to CNN reporter Eva McKend, the message began airing Sunday and will be continue to be broadcasted through Nov. 2. The message "will air during morning services as part of outreach effort aimed to boost @TerryMcAuliffe," McKend reported
In her message, Harris does not hide her endorsement of McAuliffe. Not only does she urge parishioners to "vote after today's service," but Harris tells church-goers that, "I know that you will send Terry McAuliffe back to Richmond."
What is the problem with Harris' message?
The explicitly political message, which certainly endorses a political candidate, seemingly violates the Johnson Amendment.
The Internal Revenue Service explains:
In 1954, Congress approved an amendment by Sen. Lyndon Johnson to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, which includes charities and churches, from engaging in any political campaign activity. To the extent Congress has revisited the ban over the years, it has in fact strengthened the ban. The most recent change came in 1987 when Congress amended the language to clarify that the prohibition also applies to statements opposing candidates.
Currently, the law prohibits political campaign activity by charities and churches by defining a 501(c)(3) organization as 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 further explains that tax-exempt organizations that violate the law are subject to losing their tax-exempt status.
Under the Internal Revenue Code, 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. 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.
Tax-exempt organizations, however, are permitted to engage in "certain voter education activities" and "other activities intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process" so long as they are "conducted in a non-partisan manner." Harris' message clearly goes beyond such permitted activity.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki appeared to skirt the Hatch Act last week when she seemingly endorsed McAuliffe during a press briefing from the White House.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed an ethics complaint over Psaki's remarks.