With the campaign
season in full swing, a liberal Pasadena, Calif.,
church is locked in an escalating dispute with the IRS over
an antiwar sermon--delivered two days before the
2004 presidential election--that could cost the
congregation its tax-exempt status.
on both the right and left are watching closely, afraid
the confrontation at All Saints Church in this Los Angeles
suburb will compromise their ability to speak out on
issues they see as morally important, such as
abortion and same-sex marriage, during the midterm
Under federal tax
law, church officials can legally discuss politics, but
to retain tax-exempt status, they cannot endorse candidates
or parties. Most who do so receive a warning.
According to the
IRS, the only church ever to be stripped of its
tax-exempt status for partisan politicking was the Church at
Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., which was
penalized in 1995 after running full-page newspaper
ads against Bill Clinton during the 1992 election
fall's congressional races, the IRS warned that it would be
scrutinizing churches and charities--important
platforms, particularly for Republicans--for
unlawful political activity.
All Saints is an
Episcopal church of about 3,500--the largest west of
the Mississippi--and has long had a reputation
for liberal social activism among its largely
affluent, Democratic-leaning membership.
During World War
II its rector spoke out against the internment of
Japanese-Americans. The Reverend George Regas, who headed
the church for 28 years before retiring in 1995, was
well-known for opposing the Vietnam War, championing
female clergy, and supporting gays in the church.
centers on a sermon titled "If Jesus Debated Senator
Kerry and President Bush,'' which Regas delivered as a guest
pastor. Though he did not endorse a candidate, he said
Jesus would condemn the Iraq war and Bush's doctrine
of preemptive war.
"I believe Jesus
would say to Bush and Kerry: 'War is itself the most
extreme form of terrorism. President Bush, you have not made
dramatically clear what have been the human
consequences of the war in Iraq,' " Regas said,
according to a transcript.
reprimanded the church in June 2005 and asked that it
promise to be more careful. Church officials refused.
Last week the IRS
demanded documents and an interview with the rector by
the end of the month. Church officials will probably fight
the action, said the rector, the Reverend Ed Bacon.
That would mean the IRS would have to ask for a
hearing before a judge.
"You can't talk
about the love of the neighbor without talking about
public policy," Bacon said.
echoed those sentiments.
In South Dakota,
where citizens in November will vote on the nation's
most restrictive abortion law, preachers have taken classes
to avoid breaking federal law.
"I would think
that that speech should not be censored and neither
should ours," said the Reverend Ron Traub of the Pasadena
case. Traub, senior pastor at the First Assembly of
God in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he never mentions
candidates by name but tells his congregation to vote
for the abortion ban and for politicians who espouse the
"When the IRS
comes into my pulpit and tells me I cannot speak on
issues, on spiritual and moral issues, I believe my
congregation will be willing to stand with me and say,
'If you want to take away our IRS status, go ahead,"'
he said. "The only approval that we need is the
approval of God."
commissioner of the IRS tax-exempt and government entities
division, would not comment on the specifics of the
investigation but denied the agency had any partisan
"It's a delicate
area, there's no question," Miller said. "But we are
not trying to curtail people's right to speak."
Miller said the
agency completed investigations of 90 tax-exempt churches
and charities in 2004 and found wrongdoing in 70% of the
cases. Four--none of them churches--lost
their tax-exempt status. In 2005 the agency began
audits of 70 churches and charities, and it has 40 cases
pending so far this year.
Earlier this year
IRS commissioner Mark W. Everson promised more robust
In recent years
Republicans in particular have teamed with conservative
evangelical leaders to motivate would-be voters, a strategy
credited with helping President Bush win reelection.
Intensified IRS enforcement could erode the
relationship between religious and political leaders,
according to some political strategists.
"The IRS action
will hinder the ability of some of the churches to
make their lists available, to make their pulpits available,
to make their sanctuaries available," said Democratic
strategist Donna Brazile.
Others say the
All Saints case will barely affect politicians' use of
All Saints has
been known as "a headquarters for political activity''
since the 1970s, said Steve Frank, a GOP consultant who
organizes churches for political campaigns. The IRS is
probably using the sermon as an excuse to investigate
the church's expenditures, Frank said.
"It's not a
question of the IRS going after one ideology. They're
going after anybody that violates the law," he said. "The
reality is, it doesn't stop a minister from
teaching...what they believe is the truth within the
Bible." (Gillian Flaccus, AP)