Religion, Wars, and the IRS: Pro-War Sermons Get Tax Privilege; Anti-War Sermons Not


If the former Rector George F. Regas of All Souls Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California had given a sermon that was both pro-war and pro-Bush, would the IRS then have written a letter threatening the church’s IRS exemption?
This is outrageious news. Read a slice of this piece by Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Welch in the Los Angeles Times:

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.
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.

I do not have the time at the moment to pursue the IRS communications staff, but here are the IRS contact points for journalists if any others are interested.
Here are the questions to ask:

1. Were there any inquiries regarding any ministers, pastors, or priests who turned over church parish rosters to principles or agents working for the Republican National Committee so that this “Dems Will Ban the Bible” election flyer could be mailed? (Here is a bit more commentary on that RNC mailer.)
2. What other churches, operating in the U.S., have had their IRS tax-exempt status challenged? I am referring to churches of Christian denomination — not the Church of Scientology.
3. When Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and other politically-directed ministers rant about Democratic political contenders or moderate Republicans — like John McCain, as they did with McCain during the confederate flag controversy — has the IRS issued any warning letters whatsoever? (I should be clear here that there are many evangelical ministers who do not feel it appropriate to engage in political endorsements one way or the other from the pulpit — but this is not true with Robertson and Falwell).
4. Have any churches or ministers been challenged for pro-Bush commentary, or explicitly pro-Iraq war sermons that had a political tinge to it? Has even one church been challenged?

I am off to Prague and Berlin this week — and have a number of other efforts underway — particularly with regard to Ahmed Chalabi’s visit to Washington this week — but I may try to pose these questions to the IRS. But other bloggers and journalists out there should ask these sorts of questions.
More later.
— Steve Clemons
Ed. note: Thanks to SH and LF for sending me this piece in the Los Angeles Times.