Voter turnout is critical in the final days of the Virginia governor’s race, when so much hangs in the balance for the Commonwealth. And yet recent reports of a planned strategy by candidate Governor Terry McAuliffe (D) raises serious concerns about the politicization of religious communities and potential violations of federal tax restrictions on 501(c)(3) organizations.
This week, CNN reported that more than 300 historically Black churches plan to show a video message from Vice President Kamala Harris that aims to drive turnout for Governor McAuliffe ahead of Election Day in their morning worship services. No matter the urgency partisan politicking not only sows division in congregations, but endangers the financial wellbeing of these essential institutions.
In 1954, Congress approved an amendment to the federal tax code to prohibit 501(c)(3) organizations, including houses of worship, from engaging in political campaign activity. This ban became known as the Johnson Amendment and has only been strengthened over time through congressional and regulatory action. The IRS is clear that these institutions “must not participate in, or intervene in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office” – including showing favor toward or explicit endorsement of a candidate. Should they do so, houses of worship risk losing their tax exempt status.
Out of respect for the essential role that religious institutions play in Virginia and in recognition of the federal tax code prohibition on partisan politicking from the pulpit, Interfaith Alliance urged the McAuliffe campaign to cancel all plans to screen endorsement videos during worship services.
Rabbi Jack Moline, president of Interfaith Alliance, served as a congregational rabbi in Virginia for nearly three decades and witnessed the profound ways that houses of worship enrich in the public and private lives of his friends and neighbors. But, he wrote in letters to the campaign and the Vice President’s office, “I have never endorsed a candidate for public office from the pulpit, even when members of my own congregation were running. Why? Because it’s one thing to organize congregants to get out the vote – and something quite different to tell them who to vote for.”
Religious conviction and care for one another can inspire powerful political action. So it’s not surprising that clergy and houses of worship feel the pull of partisanship at election time. Interfaith Alliance’s A Campaign Season Guide for Houses of Worship offers guidance and ideas for mobilizing religious communities around shared values without running afoul of federal tax law.