Saturday, November 12, 2005

Escape from the Planet of WWJD?

When my blog grows up, it's going to have categories for stories like this. For now, the series continues, and you can follow the trail of bread crumbs like I have to.

I found this version of the LA Times article about All Saint's Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, which includes some information at the end which makes it sound like the situation may yet end well. But this sentence caught my eye for the first time:

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."
Now, to put that in context, here is a bit of new information from the church's tax attorney:

"I doubt it's politically motivated," Owens said. ""I think it is more a case of senior management at IRS not paying attention to what the rules are."

According to Owens, six years ago the IRS used to send about 20 such letters to churches a year. That number has increased sharply because of the agency's recent delegation of audit authority to agents on the front lines, he said.
Now, just think about it. The IRS is threatening a church's tax-exempt status on the basis of a newspaper article, and how that article described a sermon. This is how the sermon is described in the linked (not the original) article:

Regas' 2004 sermon imagined how Jesus would admonish Bush and Kerry if he debated them. Regas never urged parishioners to vote for one candidate over the other, but he did say that he believes Jesus would oppose the war in Iraq, and that Jesus would be saddened by Bush's positions on the use and testing of nuclear weapons.

In the sermon, Regas said, " President Bush has led us into war with Iraq as a response to terrorism. Yet 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.' "

Later, he had Jesus confront both Kerry and Bush: "I will tell you what I think of your war: The sin at the heart of this war against Iraq is your belief that an American life is of more value than an Iraqi life. That an American child is more precious than an Iraqi baby. God loathes war."

If Jesus debated Bush and Kerry, Regas said, he would say to them, "Why is so little mentioned about the poor?''

In his own voice, Regas said: ''The religious right has drowned out everyone else. Now the faith of Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American…. I'm not pro-abortion, but pro-choice. There is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child."

When you go into the voting booth, Regas told the congregation, "take with you all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker. Take all that Jesus means to you. Then vote your deepest values."
You might call that "searing." I don't. Maybe urging people to "vote your deepest values" is "searing" in the current political context, but I doubt that kind of subtle irony was what the original journalist had in mind. And still, the question is, should the IRS investigate because that kind of description gets into a newspaper article? Is that all it takes to trigger IRS scrutiny of a church? Since the IRS can't tell us who they investigate, or why, how do we find out?

As I said before, the clear effect here is a "chilling" one. Whether it's meant to be that way is irrelevant. It's what you do, not what you mean to do, that counts.

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