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Tuesday, November 8, 2005

IRS takes aim at liberal church for antiwar sermon.

This news is outrageous: The IRS is challenging a California Episcopal church's tax-exempt status because a retired priest said Jesus would oppose the invasion of Iraq in a sermon on the weekend before the 2004 election:

In his [Oct. 31, 2004] sermon, [the Rev. George F.] Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991's Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that "good people of profound faith" could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support.

But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster."

On June 9, the church received a letter from the IRS stating that "a reasonable belief exists that you may not be tax-exempt as a church " The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns and elections.

The letter went on to say that "our concerns are based on a Nov. 1, 2004, newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times and a sermon presented at the All Saints Church discussed in the article."

The IRS cited The Times story's description of the sermon as a "searing indictment of the Bush administration's policies in Iraq" and noted that the sermon described "tax cuts as inimical to the values of Jesus."

The Times headlines the story "Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning" — but I think the newly politicized IRS is actually more sensitive to the second charge. Every religious organization in the country ought to see how unacceptable this investigation is — or else the IRS should immediately challenge the tax-exempt status of every religious organization that has ever raised questions about existing law.

Since June, the congregation's rector and vestry have attempted to convince the IRS that the church has not violated the section of the tax code — the 501(c)(3) regulations — that prohibit endorsements of individual candidates or parties. But when the IRS said it planned to proceed with a formal investigation, the rector informed the congregation of the investigation this past Sunday.

One teensy recommendation to the IRS: Don't take on a 3,500-member Episcopal church. Those people have money and clout:

In an October letter to the IRS, Marcus Owens, the church's tax attorney and a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, said, "It seems ludicrous to suggest that a pastor cannot preach about the value of promoting peace simply because the nation happens to be at war during an election season."

Owens said that an IRS audit team had recently offered the church a settlement during a face-to-face meeting.

"They said if there was a confession of wrongdoing, they would not proceed to the exam stage. They would be willing not to revoke tax-exempt status if the church admitted intervening in an election."

The church declined the offer.


("Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning," Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch, Los Angeles Times 11.7.05, reg req'd)

Postscript: If you preached a sermon in the month prior to Election Day 2004 related to anything or anyone on the ballot — gay marriage, abortion, gambling, immigration laws, tax laws or referendums, the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, economic policy, the "war on terror," or anything else that could be construed at applying some leverage to how people might vote — and have had your congregation's tax status challenged by the IRS, please do leave a comment. And if you preached on any of these topics and have not received any communication from the IRS, be brave and speak up, too. Let's see how rare the IRS letter to All Saints Church in Pasadena really is.

Update 5:39 p.m.: Today's followup story in the Times reports two important additions to this story: The IRS is still investigating approximately 60 nonprofits (including about 20 churches) for political involvement in the 2004 presidential election. And a coalition of conservative and liberal church groups responded angrily to the IRS investigation of All Saints, including both the National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches.

("Conservatives Also Irked by IRS Probe of Churches," Jason Felch and Patricia Ward Biederman, Los Angeles Times 11.8.05, reg req'd)

Update 11.11.05: Ted Olsen observes that All Saints has learned to manipulate the media as deftly as the Christian right.

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 8 November 2005 at 8:19 AM

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November 8, 2005 08:39 AM | Permalink for this comment

-- This isn't too unusuall. The IRS has in recent years targetted conservative Christian churches for advocating for specific (usually Republican) candidates. The fine distinction normally made is that churches can advocate for or against policies, but not for or against specific candidates. See the web site for the organization, Americans United For Seperation Of Church and State, and the writings of the Rev. Barry Lynn.

What makes this issue rather thorny is that both the policy and the candidate were so tightly tied together in the last election. It is no small thing that the policy of pre-emptive warfare is named "The Bush Doctrine".


Bill Baar:

November 8, 2005 06:01 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think IRS last used ten years ago against a conservative church that 'went after' Clinton. (The recent Texas case being a little different; that's someone saying UUs aren't a religion).

I thought someone came to our Church and talked about how they visited mega Churches and other Conservative Churches crossing these lines as a part of a group out to police the religious right. I thought it a little harsh at the time.

Here in Chicago we have a Congressmen, Bobby Rush, who's an ordained minister with his own Congregation. There the issue goes the other way with the Rush's Political contributions getting pushed over into the Church funds.

cami comstock:

November 12, 2005 06:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am sorry that you are being treated this way. I would like to help if I can this is an out rage
FReedom of speech freedom of religion. I think it's time we all came together and decided to stop
killing innocent people for money.


November 27, 2005 05:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

The New York Times editorial page takes note of the story:

I.R.S. officials have said about 20 churches are being investigated for activities across the political spectrum that could jeopardize their tax status. The agency is barred by law from revealing which churches, but officials have said these targets were chosen by a team of civil servants, not political appointees, at the Treasury Department. The I.R.S. argues that freedom of religion does not grant freedom from taxes if churches engage in politics.

That should mean that the 2004 presidential campaign would be an extremely fertile field. While some churches allowed Democrats to speak from the pulpit, the conservative Christians last year mounted an especially intense -- and successful -- drive to keep President Bush in office.

("Taxing an Unfriendly Church," editorial, New York Times 11.22.05, reg req'd)

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