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IRS resumes examination of All Saints Church in Pasadena

By Mary Frances Schjonberg

The Rev. Dr. George Regas, former rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, California  

[Episcopal News Service]  The rector and vestry of All Saints Church, Pasadena, along with their attorneys, will decide by the end of the week whether to challenge an Internal Revenue Service summons to appear before an officer of the IRS, which is examining the parish's tax-exempt status after a 2004 sermon preached at the church by its former rector.

The IRS summons requires All Saints to turn over certain records on September 29. The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, All Saints' rector, is required to testify on October 11 about those records and the parish's relationship with its rector emeritus, the Rev. Dr. George Regas.

In early June 2005, the IRS notified All Saints that it was investigating the parish's tax-exempt status because of a sermon Regas preached on October 31, 2004, the Sunday before the 2004 Presidential election.

The IRS has alleged that the sermon may have been an "implicit" intervention in the 2004 presidential election because it contained references to the two candidates' positions on certain moral issues, and it reminded parishioners of the need to consider their values when voting.

It is against federal law for organizations with tax-exempt status to directly or indirectly participate in or intervene in any political campaign on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for political office. The law went into effect with the Revenue Act of 1954 and has been upheld as constitutional.

"I don't intend to tell you how to vote," Regas said early in his sermon.

Bacon received a three-minute standing ovation September 17 from those worshipping at the Los Angeles-area parish after his sermon during which he outlined the current status of the dispute with the IRS, according to Keith Holeman, All Saints' communications director.

"History is shamefully littered with the moral bankruptcy of people who were Christian in name but not behavior, who were silent or indifferent or neutral in the face of dehumanizing and destructive public policies," Bacon said during that sermon, arguing against what he called an IRS perception that churches should remain neutral in political matters.

"What that thinking totally misses is that we do not have a choice about whether or not to be neutral in the face of dehumanization, injustice, and violence," he said. "Our faith mandates that always stopping short of endorsing or opposing political candidates, the church can neither be silent nor indifferent when there are public policies causing detriment to the least of these."

Bacon said that if the IRS is successful "in chilling the voices in American pulpits and houses of worship, religion in America will lose all relevance and moral authority and
offer nothing but impotence" in the face of such issues as "this war of aggression in Iraq," the global AIDS pandemic, bigotry, the issue of U.S.-sanctioned torture, and the condition of children all over the world.

On July 24, the parish received a list of 13 questions from the agency, which a September 15 parish news release said "probed deeply into its core religious practices." All Saints said in its new release that it "responded by raising both substantive and procedural concerns, and requested that the Agency clarify the intentions of the examination, because of its wide-ranging First Amendment implications." It said it asked the IRS to reconsider its questions and reissue request in the form of an administrative summons, which was served September 15.

The summons requires the parish to turn over such items as copies of all of its organizing documents, its 2004 vestry minutes, all recordings of Regas' sermon and all responses to it, all evidence of payments made to Regas for the sermon, all the parish's bills for October 2004, all instructions given to Regas and other guest preachers, and all written policies in effect in 2004 about political candidates and "political campaign intervention."

"Though the IRS tailored its inquiry, now recast as an administration summons, it still delves into a constitutionally protected area: the language and practices of All Saints' worship service," All Saints' news release says.

The release speculates that the IRS may have raised the issue now because the mid-term Congressional elections are about two months off.

"The sermon in question expressed without partisanship our values of peacemaking and of working for healing, human rights, and justice in solidarity with the poor, vulnerable and marginalized in our society," Bacon said in the release. "These values cannot and will not be abandoned solely because there is an election cycle."

The New York Times reported September 18 that Christian activists on all points of the political spectrum are creating voters' guides and organizing events aimed at the mid-term elections. "Both religious flanks are looking nervously over their shoulders at the Internal Revenue Service, which this year announced a renewed effort to enforce laws that limit churches and charities from involvement in partisan political campaigns," the Times reported.

"We became concerned in the 2004 election cycle that we were seeing more political activity among charities, including churches," said Lois G. Lerner, the director for exempt organizations at the IRS, told the newspaper. "In fact, of the organizations we looked at, we saw a very high percentage of some improper political activity, and that is really why we have ramped up the program in 2006."

Background about the All Saints case, including Bacon's and Regas' sermon

The full New York Times article

The IRS has posted information on its website about so-called 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations