As part of its efforts to get a Republican elected Virginia governor, CNSNews.com tried to play gotcha in an Oct. 19 article by Megan Williams:
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley questioned whether Vice President Kamala Harris deliberately tried to violate the law by creating a video played to black Virginia churchgoers, urging them to vote for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe.
"The Biden Administration has to enforce our tax laws, including rules governing 501(c)3 organizations, including churches," Turley told Laura Ingraham on Monday's "The Ingraham Angle." "Now part of those regulations include what’s called the Johnson Amendment, and that prohibits direct politicking in churches in order to be tax-exempt."
Williams added a Turley quote in a transcriopt: "So, if churches play this video, they would be in violation of federal law. If the White House participated in this plan to have direct politicking, they would have assisted in that violation. Now that puts them in a rather awkward position since their administration has to enforce this very rule."
But Williams left buried in the transcript another statement by Turley:
What’s interesting, Laura, is President Trump really did not like the Johnson Amendment, insisted that he was going to get rid of it.
“And when he did, many Democrats, many legal experts cried foul, and they said this is destroying the separation of church and state, this is encouraging the violation of federal law. And yet, after this video played, there was nothing but crickets from many of those areas.”
But if Trump got rid of the Johnson Amendment, why is Turley accusing Harris of violating something that doesn't exist? That's because Trump didn't actually get rid of it; he just issued an executive order that basically didn't do anything and left the statute on the books.
This was followed by an Oct. 27 column by Star Parker, who declared: "According to some opinions, Harris' politicking for McAuliffe in churches violates either or both the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt entities such as churches from electioneering, and the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal government officials from using their position to influence the outcome of an election."
But like it was with the Logan Act, CNS is being hypocritical about the Johnson Amendment: the desire to see it enforced depends on which party is controlling the White House. Indeed, it aggressively cheered efforts by Trump and its fellow conservative to blunt to repeal the amendment. Let's look at how that was done:
- An August 2016 article by Susan Jones touted then-candidate Trump telling evangelicalpastors that "we're going to get your voice back" because, he said, "he told his people to add repeal of the Johnson amendment into the Republican Party Platform."
- A column the next day by Alliance Defending Freedom's Erik Stanley declared that "Pulpit freedom won’t truly exist in America until something is done about the Johnson Amendment."
- An October 2016 column by Family Research Ceouncil president Tony Perkins huffed: "Today, many pastors and churches have been intimidated into silence by guidance from the Internal Revenue Service that relies on the Johnson Amendment to repress speech from the pulpit. This is not right, and it must change."
- A November 2016 column by John Stonestreet gushed that in a meeting with Trump and his aides, it was clear that one of the definitions of "religious liberty" they had was "=repealing the Johnson Amendment."
- A February 2017 article by Melanie Arter touted how then-Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said he endorses "Trump’s plan to get rid of the Johnson amendment, which bars pastors from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit." Another article that month highlighted Trump's claimed desire to, in the words of Vice President Mike Pence, "take action on the Johnson amendment."
- A column that month by Bill Donohue lamented that Trump was being "criticized for his desire to repeal the Johnson Amendment" and attacked one critic's claim that it might open a "dark money loophole for political donations."
In May 2017, Craig Bannister hyped Trump's executive order that "directs the IRS to exercise maximum enforcement discretion to alleviate the burden of the Johnson Amendment" and how "Priests, nuns, the largest women’s public policy group in the U.S., and the niece of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. all gave thanks" for the order -- though, as noted above, it didn't really do anything.
That was followed by Arter gushing over Trump's signing of the order, which she falsely claimed repealed the amendment:
President Donald Trump marked the National Day of Prayer on Thursday by signing an executive order repealing the Johnson Amendment, which targets religious leaders who engage in political speech by threatening their tax-exempt status.
“For too long, the federal government has used the power of the state as a weapon against people of faith - bullying and even punishing Americans for following their religious beliefs,” the president said.
A column by Stonestreet, however, surprisingly admitted that Trump's executive order was largely for show: "the Johnson Amendment is bad law, but it’s rarely, if ever, enforced. So the order effectively tells the IRS to continue doing what it is already doing." A column by Ryan T. Andersaon a few days later similarly conceded that "legislation is required to actually address the Johnson Amendment—which isn’t the prime priority on religious liberty."
Nevertheless, Arter returned to gushing in a June 2017 article that in a speech, Trump "talked about how he repealed the Johnson Amendment, which made prohibited nonprofits - including churches - from endorsing political candidates and participating in political campaigns or risk losing their nonprofit status." A separate article the following uncritically quoted Trump saying, "I just signed an executive order following -- and this is something that makes me very happy and very proud -- following through on my campaign pledge to stop the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights."
The confusion over what exactly Trump did, and CNS' failure to consistently report the facts, continued:
- An October 2017 article by Arter uncritically quoted Trump claiming that his executive order "followed through on one of my most important campaign promises to so many of you - to prevent the horrendous Johnson Amendment from interfering with your 1st Amendment rights."
- A February 2018 article by Craig Bannister quoted Pence saying that " we’ll continue to free up the pulpits of this country by repealing the Johnson Amendment, because freedom shouldn’t stop at the doors of our churches, synagogues, or places of worship.”
- A May 2018 article by Arter uncritically quoted Trump: "Last year on this day, I took executive action to prevent the Johnson Amendment - a disaster- from interfering with our First Amendment rights. I was so proud of that."
- Patrick Goodenough similarly quoted Trump saying in August 2018, “We have stopped the Johnson Amendment from interfering with your First Amendment rights,” though he did parenthetically add: "(Trump signed an executive order in May 2017 instructing the Treasury Department not to enforce the provision against religious organizations. Initiatives are underway in Congress to repeal it.)"
- That same month, a column by Alveda King listed "Rescind the Johnson Amendment" among Trump's campaign promises, misleadingly suggesting he has fulfilled it.
- In a May 2019 article, Arter uncritically wrote that "Trump said he’s most proud of repealing the Johnson Amendment, a provision in the U.S. tax code that prohibits non-profit organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates," adding Trump's false claim that "we got rid of the Johnson Amendment. That’s a big thing."
Why would CNS want a Democrat prosecuted under a law it and its allies want repealed? Because they're a bunch of hypocrites.