Virginia faces a hotly contested gubernatorial election next month. National political leaders on both sides are active in the race, hoping to boost their party’s candidate.
As part of that effort, Vice President Kamala Harris produced a video during which she encourages people to vote for the Democratic candidate, Terry McAuliffe. According to news reports, the video was sent to Virginia churches to be shown during services.
In the video, Harris clearly endorses McAuliffe, remarking, “Elect Terry McAuliffe as your next governor.”
Virginia’s religious leaders should keep that video at arm’s length, lest they violate a federal law dating to 1954 called the Johnson Amendment. The provision ensures tax-exempt nonprofit groups, including houses of worship, do not intervene in partisan elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.
“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,” I explained. “No one wants their charities and houses of worship to be torn apart by partisan campaign politics.”
Yet violations of the Johnson Amendment occur on both sides of the political aisle. For example, during the 2016 election, a video featuring Mike Pence lauding Donald Trump was produced and played in many conservative churches. In the 2020 election, some evangelical leaders used their pulpits to campaign for Trump and since then, to claim that he had been robbed by fraud of a second term. That, too, was inappropriate.
Some of the current confusion about what the Johnson Amendment allows stems from former President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks on the Johnson Amendment and his false claims that he got rid of the law. The law is still very much in effect.
Under the Johnson Amendment, houses of worship and their leaders can continue to fully exercise their free speech rights on political and social issues:
- They can speak to any issue they choose from the pulpit or in public and write about issues in bulletins or their website.
- They can host candidate forums, engage in voter registration drives, encourage people to vote, help transport people to the polls and more.
- Clergy and other faith leaders are absolutely free to support or endorse political candidates as private citizens – just as any of us can.
Polls show that Americans oppose houses of worship becoming politicized; no one wants them to become cogs in candidates’ political machines. Here’s the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen: Houses of worship must follow the law and not endorse political candidates.