All Saints Pasadena cleared by IRS

All Saints Episcopal Church of Pasadena, California, will keep its non-profit status after a two year inquiry of a sermon given by a visiting speaker in 2004, but the IRS also found that the sermon was an improper intervention in electoral politics. The Los Angeles Times has the report:

The rector of a liberal Pasadena church today demanded an apology and a clarification from the Internal Revenue Service after being notified that the agency had closed a lengthy investigation of the church over a 2004 antiwar sermon -- but also found that the same sermon constituted illegal intervention in a political campaign.

The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon Jr., rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, told congregants during morning services today that he and other officials were relieved that the church no longer faced the imminent loss of its tax-exempt status, but were bewildered by the IRS' seemingly contradictory conclusions about the case.

All Saints has "no more guidance about the IRS rules now than when we started this process over two long years ago," Bacon said. He said the lack of clarity from the IRS in its recent letter to the church would have a continuing "chilling effect" on the freedom of clerics from all faiths to preach about core moral values and such issues as war and poverty.

. . .

All Saints, one of Southern California's largest and most liberal congregations, came under IRS scrutiny after a sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election by a guest speaker, the Rev. George F. Regas. In the sermon, Regas, the church's former rector, depicted Jesus in a mock political debate with then-presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.

Regas did not instruct parishioners whom to support in the presidential race, but his suggestion that Jesus would have told Bush that his preemptive war strategy in Iraq "has led to disaster" prompted a letter from the IRS in June 2005 stating that the church's tax-exempt status was in question.

Federal law prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns and elections.

In its latest letter to All Saints, dated Sept. 10, the IRS said the church continues to qualify for tax-exempt status but that Regas' sermon on Oct. 31, 2004, amounted to a one-time intervention in the 2004 presidential race. The letter offered no specifics or explanation for either conclusion, but noted that the church did have appropriate policies in place to ensure that it complied with prohibitions on political activity.

. . .

In addition to its requests for clarification and an apology, All Saints has asked a top Treasury Department official -- its inspector general for tax administration -- to investigate what the church described as a series of procedural and substantive errors in the case, including allegedly inappropriate conversations about it between IRS and Justice Department officials.

Those conversations, documented in e-mails obtained by the church through Freedom of Information Act requests, appear to show that Justice Department officials were involved in the All Saints case before the IRS made any formal referral of it for possible prosecution, an attorney for the church said. And they raise concerns that the IRS' investigation may have been politically motivated.

"In view of the fact that recent congressional inquiries have revealed extensive politicization of [the Department of Justice], my client is very concerned that the close coordination undertaken by the IRS allowed partisan political concerns to direct the course of the All Saints examination," attorney Marcus S. Owens wrote in a Sept. 21 letter requesting an investigation.

Read it all here.

For church leaders concerned about this issue, the most recent IRS guidance on political activity by churches and other nonprofits can be found here. A description of the IRS's enforcement actions against churches in 2006 can be found here. The Alliance Defense Fund, a legal organization affiliated with the Christian Right has a useful "Pastor Do's and Don'ts" here.

Comments (1)

I am not a lawyer, but unless the federal courts have gone completely berserk, I think it should be perfectly clear to them that the First Amendment guarantees to religious organizations the right to participate in politics and endorse candidates if they wish to. If George Regas can't say from the pulpit that George W. Bush isn't following Jesus, we're really in trouble as a free people. Surely the law banning endorsements is unconstitutional. I wouldn't wish the assignment on All Saints, Pasadena, but someone should litigate the question. This is one issue on which I think Americans United is flat out wrong.

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