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Did Harris, McAuliffe and the religious community violate IRS laws?

Did Harris, McAuliffe and the religious community violate IRS laws?

Vice President Harris has produced a two-minute video urging voters in Virginia to cast their ballot for Democrat candidate and former Governor Terry McAuliffe.  So far, that seems like standard operating procedure in political campaigns.

The Harris video is specifically targeting black voters.  Nothing unusual about that.

The video was produced for use in black churches throughout Virginia.  Whoa!!  Was the video crafted to be shown at black churches in an effort to get parishioners to vote of McAuliffe?  Was this an endorsement video to be played during or after Church services?  The answer to those questions is “yes” … and “yes.”

There in lies the problem.  Churches are virtually all what the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers a charity – designated by IRS rules as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.  That means they are not required to pay income taxes or sales taxes.  The also do not pay property taxes, but that is not an IRS issue.

In return for Uncle Sam subsidizing the charitable work of the churches, they are prohibited from engaging in partisan politics.  Churches – and all those other 501(c)(3) organizations – are not allowed to endorse candidates or host partisan events on their premises or under their sponsorship.

In other words, Harris, McAuliffe and the various churches have violated a very clear and specific law that can result in fines and the cancelling of the churches’ special tax status.

Truth be known, black churches have flagrantly violated the IRS rule historically.  Some say it is a tradition that goes back to the days of slavery.  Travelling preachers would bring both political news and the word of God to slaves – often using a coding, the residual of which can be seen in the black political culture today.

In my long experience in campaigning, I have seen the double standard up close.  White churches in Chicago generally shunned political activity – often discouraging the distribution of campaign literature even on the sidewalk beyond Church property.  Conversely, I have attended scores of black church services in which political endorsements came from the pulpit – sometimes by the candidates themselves.

I garnered some of the experience when working as the campaign communications director for Mayor Eugene Sawyer – the Windy City’s second black mayor.  Since I am a lover of gospel I would spend all day Sundays travelling with the Mayor from one black church to another.

The skirting of the law largely a practice of local churches and local politicians – so there was not a lot of light shed on the question of legality.  But the Harris video puts a whole new light on the subject – a much brighter light … a national light.

As a lawyer and prosecutor, we can safely assume that Harris was well aware of the IRS regulation.  It is impossible to believe that McAuliffe did not know.  Many of the more than 300 black pastors who were provided the video may not have known they were being encouraged to do something illegal – risking their tax-free status.  It has been such a tradition in black churches fo so long that many pastors might not know the specifics. 

Maybe the White House can claim that they did not know the 300 pastors would show the video during services.  According to Jonathan Turley, Shapiro professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School, if Harris puts the blame on the pastors, she is essentially “throwing them under the bus.”

Turley went on to say, “there is a legitimate interest in whether the White House knowingly participated in an effort to campaign in churches in violation of their federal obligations.”

If it was known that the videos were being sent to churches, didn’t Harris make sure there was a warning on the video NOT to use it during services or on Church property.  Or is it possible that, when making the video, Harris did not know that the McAuliffe campaign intended to use it exclusively in black churches?  Nope.  

There is one sentence spoken by Harris that puts the issue squarely in the White House camp.  They knew the purpose and distribution of the video.  After given McAuliffe the standard endorsement, Harris said in the video, “So please, vote after today’s service.”  Busted.

If you are inclined to doubt Harris, the White House and McAuliffe would so brazenly thwart an IRS regulation, check out the “Johnson Amendment” – enacted into law by then Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson.  The law defines 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.”  Pretty clear … eh?

Do not expect the IRS to be going after Harris, McAuliffe or any of the pastors.  This is a regulation that is rarely enforced – and then only against organizations on the right side of the political spectrum.

So, there ‘tis.

About The Author

Larry Horist

So,there‘tis… The opinions, perspectives and analyses of Larry Horist Larry Horist is a businessman, conservative writer and political strategist with an extensive background in economics and public policy. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman. He has served as a consultant to the Nixon White House and travelled the country as a spokesman for President Reagan’s economic reforms. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress. Horist has lectured and taught courses at numerous colleges and universities, including Harvard, Northwestern, DePaul universities, Hope College and his alma mater, Knox College. He has been a guest on hundreds of public affairs talk shows, and hosted his own program, “Chicago In Sight,” on WIND radio. Horist was a one-time candidate for mayor of Chicago and served as Executive Director of the City Club of Chicago, where he led a successful two-year campaign to save the historic Chicago Theatre from the wrecking ball. An award-winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He is praised by readers for his style, substance and sense of humor. According to one reader, Horist is the “new Charles Krauthammer.” He is actively semi-retired in Boca Raton, Florida where he devotes his time to writing. So, there ‘tis is Horist’s signature sign off.


  1. FranksTetson

    Hmm. Didn’t you accuse me of parroting Morning Joe,? And here you are taking a page from Fox and the blogosphere. .

    Yes, all true, especially the part about churches doing this for years. Evangelicals especially for Trump.

    I think you left out the gray area; voter education is OK for 501’s. That’s the actual line being crossed here, that’s the part of these things, that’s being abused routinely, by both side of the aisle.

    Certainly, if you copied the Harris quote as carefully as you parroted the Fox News story, she is and the churches are: BUSTED. Terry is probably wishful thinking though. Can I say “ there’tisis?”

    • larry Horist

      I can understand your assumption, but I should set the record straight. I wrote that commentary before I saw the FOX report. On occasion, it can take several days for my commentaries to get uploaded — especially over a weekend. Not sure how much experience you have had with churches — black, Hispanic or white — especially were there is a political connection. It is true that evangelicals have been strong supporters of Trump, but not necessarily from the pulpit. And I have had tons of experience setting up, running and advising on 501s of all sorts. I think you are assuming that evangelical churches volute their 501 statutes. I have not seen that in my involvements. Ministers can endorse candidates … and church groups can participate in politics if off-campus. That is the issue.

      I never got over wrought with black churches having candidates “drop by” for an “endorsement.” Partly because I never saw it as a serious problem — and partly because I respected the tradition of circuit preachers bringing political information to parishioners in the days of slaver. The Harris/’McAuliffe situation — with the creation of the video — was too far over the line.