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.This is the closest thing I've seen to an explanation of what disturbed the IRS, and it still seems like a slippery slope to me. A judgment based on one sermon, and the interpretation of that one sermon, is barely a basis for a criminal investigation, much less an IRS investigation.
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.
At All Saints, Rector J. Edwin Bacon on Sunday told the congregants that the guest sermon by Regas, a former rector, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted the warning from the IRS. In the sermon, Regas did not instruct parishioners whom to support in the presidential election but said that Jesus would have told the president that his Iraq policies had failed.And a bit more detail, which is always revealing:
The IRS' letter cited a Times article describing Regas' sermon as having triggered the agency's concerns.
In 1976, Congress passed a law that required audits of churches to be done only if there was a "reasonable basis" to believe a violation had occurred, and made such audits subject to a special approval process from senior IRS officials.And frankly, this is a very curious line, and still amounts to: "Watch what we think you say."
Marcus Owens, the former head of tax-exempt organizations at the IRS and now a private attorney representing All Saints, said that the more recent IRS policy changes lowered the threshold for church audits, allowing front-line IRS agents to pursue probes with only cursory approval from above.
"This is exactly the sort of 1st Amendment briar patch the Congress wanted to keep the IRS out of," said Owens. The IRS disputed Owens' contention, saying audits still face a rigorous approval process by high-level agency officials.
Steven Miller, the IRS commissioner of tax-exempt and governmental entities, said there is nothing political about how cases are chosen. Churches need to be more cautious about what they say during election seasons, and make it clear when they're not speaking for the church, Miller said. "If there's no election, there's no potential for intervention.Tax-exempt status is not a right; but neither should it be a privilege subject to the whims or opinions of the IRS. Given the comments in this article from church leaders, and the experience of Pastor Jim Henry (or any politician, from Bill Clinton to Tom DeLay, who has visited a prominent church on Sunday morning during elections), I'd say we need a much clearer delineation of what constitutes acceptable speech.
"The courts have said, yes, you have freedom of speech, but not the right to tax-exempt status," he added.