Kamala Harris, Terry McAuliffe criticized for campaign ads targeting Virginia churches

US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting with members of the Democratic Texas State Senate and Texas House of Representatives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 16, 2021.
US Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a meeting with members of the Democratic Texas State Senate and Texas House of Representatives in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on June 16, 2021. | MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

A progressive church-state watchdog group has expressed concerns over a political campaign video featuring Vice President Kamala Harris slated for viewing at around 300 predominantly African American churches in Virginia.

CNN reported Saturday that over 300 African American churches would watch a video message of Harris endorsing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe during worship services beginning this Sunday through the Nov. 2 election day. 

McAuliffe, who previously served as governor of Virginia from 2014 to 2018, is in a tight race against Republican businessman and Richmond native Glenn Youngkin. The RealClearPolitics average of polls taken since the beginning of October shows McAuliffe leading Youngkin by 2.2 percentage points. 

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"I believe that my friend Terry McAuliffe is the leader Virginia needs at this moment," says Harris in the video, as reported by CNN. Additionally, she praised McAuliffe's "long track record of getting things done for the people of Virginia."

Harris' remarks did not sit well with Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a secular advocacy organization that advocates for a strict separation of church and state. 

In an interview with The Christian Post, Boston said that elected official campaigning for a political candidate during a worship service is at odds with the Johnson Amendment, a U.S. tax code rule that bars nonprofit entities and churches from endorsing political candidates. 

"The Johnson Amendment protects the integrity of tax-exempt nonprofit groups, including houses of worship, by ensuring they don't endorse or oppose candidates for public office. No one wants their charities and houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics," explained Boston.

"Playing a video during services that urges people to vote for a specific candidate would raise concerns about violating the Johnson Amendment."

Boston also told CP that "houses of worship and other nonprofits are not allowed to intervene in partisan elections."

"It doesn't matter if they're doing it on behalf of Democrats or Republicans," he said. 

While Boston believes that endorsement videos in churches violate the Johnson Amendment, he explained that the Internal Revenue Service "has not been particularly vigilant in enforcing it in recent years."

"Yet, the Johnson Amendment serves a vital function. It protects all nonprofits, including houses of worship, all taxpayers and our election system," he added.

Legal scholar Jonathan Turley accused Democrats of hypocrisy regarding the Johnson Amendment in an entry to his website. 

"Trump's desire to get the vote out through evangelical churches was widely denounced as an attack on the separation of Church and State," wrote Turley.

"That was before McAuliffe ran into trouble in what was viewed as a reliably blue state that Biden won by a wide margin. Now the same media and legal figures are silent."

Passed in 1954 and named after then-Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, the Johnson Amendment has garnered controversy in recent years by those who believe it curbs the rights of nonprofits.

In May 2017, then-President Donald Trump signed an executive order that called for the federal government to stop enforcing the Johnson Amendment due to religious freedom concerns.

"In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective," stated the executive order.

During the 2016 presidential election, then-Republican vice presidential hopeful Mike Pence had a video sent to thousands of churches encouraging the faithful to vote for Trump.

"President Donald Trump will appoint justices to the Supreme Court who will uphold our Constitution and the rights of the unborn," said Pence in the 2016 video.

"Donald Trump will also sign into law legislation that will free up the voices of faith all across this country by repealing what's come to be known as the Johnson Amendment."

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