The Internal Revenue Service has warned one of Southern California's largest and most liberal churches that it is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election.On the face of it, all I can say is: Incredible.
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 a day when churches throughout California took stands on both sides of Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors unless parents are notified, some at All Saints feared the politically active church had been singled out.And here's the nut:
"I think obviously we were a bit shocked and dismayed," said Bob Long, senior warden for the church's oversight board. "We felt somewhat targeted."
Bacon said the church had retained the services of a Washington law firm with expertise in tax-exempt organizations.
And he told the congregation: "It's important for everyone to understand that the IRS concerns are not supported by the facts."
After the initial inquiry, the church provided the IRS with a copy of all literature given out before the election and copies of its policies, Bacon said.
But the IRS recently informed the church that it was not satisfied by those materials, and would proceed with a formal examination. Soon after that, church officials decided to inform the congregation about the dispute.
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."
Some congregants were upset that a sermon citing Jesus Christ's championing of peace and the poor was the occasion for an IRS probe.The offending sermon? At the church's website, in the archives, located by date.
"I'm appalled," said 70-year-old Anne Thompson of Altadena, a professional singer who also makes vestments for the church.
"In a government that leans so heavily on religious values, that they would pull a stunt like this, it makes me heartsick."
The charitable interpretation is that this is the IRS trying to provide "balance" by investigating high profile churches. But there is a difference between preaching on issues like war or abortion or homosexual marriage, and telling parishioners who to vote for.
And then there's that whole question of politicians, from any party, making prominent public appearances at churches. I wonder if the IRS has investigated the churches where Tom DeLay has appeared on Sunday mornings?