Tuesday, November 8, 2005

Holy Crap

The IRS is looking into the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal church in Pasadena, California because of an anti-war sermon. From the Los Angeles Times:

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.

In his sermon, 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.”

As Bacon spoke, 1984 Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a co-celebrant of Sunday’s Requiem Eucharist, looked on.

“We are so careful at our church never to endorse a candidate,” Bacon said in a later interview.

“One of the strongest sermons I’ve ever given was against President Clinton’s fraying of the social safety net.”

Telephone calls to IRS officials in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles were not returned.

It makes you wonder if the IRS is also looking into churches that are rather outspoken in support of the war and President Bush’s conservative agenda. For example, during the 2004 election Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who has since been promoted) told Roman Catholic Church bishops in America to deny communion to Catholic officials who were at odds with the church’s views on certain issues such as abortion. That would seem to be targeted at Democratic candidate Senator John Kerry…but not at Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who supports the death penalty which is also in opposition to the church’s teachings. So far I have yet to hear of someone like Jerry Falwell getting a letter from the IRS looking into his blatant political activities at his church in Lynchburg, Virginia, especially during the second term of the Clinton administration when every time he opened his copious mouth and waggled his jowls he was railing against the moral degenerate in the White House. But that doesn’t mean the conservatives aren’t a little nervous about the IRS action against the church in Pasadena.

When Ted Haggard, head of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals, heard about the All Saints case Monday, he told his staff to contact the National Council of Churches, a more liberal group.

Haggard said he personally supports the war in Iraq and probably would not agree with much in the Rev. George Regas’ 2004 sermon at All Saints, which was cited by the IRS as the basis for its investigation. But Haggard said he wants to work with the council of churches “in doing whatever it takes to get the IRS to stop” such actions.

“It is a violation of the Constitution for the IRS to threaten that church. It may not be a violation of IRS regulations, but IRS regulations have been wrong,” said Haggard, who is pastor of the 12,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

Robert Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, cheered when he heard of Haggard’s offer, which Edgar said represented a rare reaching out by the evangelical group to the council.

Edgar, a United Methodist minister, former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and ex-president of the Claremont School of Theology, said the IRS move against All Saints appeared to be “a political witch hunt on George Regas and progressive ideology. It’s got to stop.” He stressed that Regas did not endorse a candidate in the sermon.

Edgar said he did not favor a bill repeatedly introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.) that would allow pastors to endorse candidates without putting their church’s tax-exempt status at risk. Existing law is adequate, as long as enforcement does not vary for churches with different ideologies, Edgar said.

The tax code prohibits nonprofits from “participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public office.” The ban includes endorsements, donations, fundraising or any other activity “that may be beneficial or detrimental to any particular candidate.”

Sauce for the goose…and the goosed.