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Pasadena Congregation to Challenge IRS Summons

By Pat McCaughan

The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon  

Exterior of All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA.  

[Episcopal News Service]  The Rev. J. Edwin Bacon, rector of All Saints Church, announced September 21 that he will not turn over parish records to Internal Revenue Service auditors, paving the way for a court hearing on allegations the church engaged in political campaigning.

"We are here not for ourselves alone but to defend the freedom of pulpits in faith communities throughout our land," said Bacon, who was flanked by a sea of Muslim, Jewish and Christian supporters, parishioners and Los Angeles-area clergy, among them the Rev. George Regas, whose anti-war sermon sparked the IRS' audit of the 3,500-member congregation.

"American pulpits in mosques, synagogues, temples and churches must not cower from the responsibility to speak truth to power, include any and every expression of American exceptionalism that through policy and practice values American life above other life," Bacon told the gathering. "All life is sacred to God. We are called by God's vision to turn the human race into the human family."

All Saints Senior Warden Bob Long's announcement that the congregation's 26-member vestry voted unanimously to challenge the IRS brought more than a hundred parishioners and others gathered at the Pasadena church to their feet in hearty approval and sustained applause.

"All Saints has nothing to hide from the IRS," Long said. "We came to this decision because we believe that these summonses intolerably infringe upon our Constitutional rights and the IRS regulations that embody those principles-namely, the First Amendment rights of this church to speak and worship freely-rights that are indispensable to this church and to faith communities throughout our great country."

He cautioned that the decision does not mean that All Saints will not provide the government with the information it legitimately deserves, but that "we have a moral responsibility to ensure the IRS's request for information is, in fact, legitimate."

A way to help: 'solidarity membership'

Members of both Jewish and Muslim faith communities announced they have become "solidarity members" of the 3,500-member Pasadena parish and as such, will help contribute toward legal costs.

"The voice of this church is deep and rich, season by decades of speaking about the component of justice in our society or the lack of it. In the 1940s when Japanese Americans were interned, the voice of All Saints Church spoke out against it...and it is no different today," Rabbi Neil Commess-Daniels told the gathering.

He encouraged his members at Temple Beth Shir Shalom to contribute a minimum pledge of $18 to help defray legal costs.

Bacon, who said that telephone calls, emails and letters in support of the congregation have been overwhelming, added that the vestry had officially voted in the new "solidarity membership" status. "No matter what religions someone is or if they have any concerns about religion, they are welcome to become a solidarity member of All Saints Church and may contribute any amount that is meaningful to them."

How Would Jesus Vote? An Anti-War Sermon

The IRS had notified the church on June 9, 2005 of its investigation into whether or not the church had violated its tax-exempt status by engaging in political campaigning after Regas' preached Oct. 31, two days before the 2004 Presidential election.

Regas prefaced criticism about both Senator John Kerry and President George W. Bush by saying: "I don't intend to tell you how to vote." He also criticized the Iraq War, and Bush economic, abortion and other social policies and urged parishioners, to vote "all your values. Bring a sensitive conscience to that ballot box."

Church attorneys had asked that the agency's request for parish documents be reissued as a summons. Last week, on Sept. 15, the IRS served the church with a summons requesting 17 requirements that information, documents and testimony regarding All Saints' relationship with Regas be made available by Sept. 29. The request included such 2004 documents as parish articles of incorporation, bylaws, policies regarding political campaign intervention, newsletters, vestry meeting minutes and financial and other information pertaining to Regas' association with the parish, including web pages if his sermon was posted prior to the Nov. 2 election date.

The summons also requested that Bacon appear before IRS investigators on Oct. 11.

After Bacon's refusal, the matter will probably be referred to the U.S. Department of Justice and then, perhaps to the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Bacon has called the audit politically-motivated and an intrusion into the church's right to the free exercise of religion. He questioned the IRS compliance with its own procedural safeguards to protect churches from unnecessary and intrusive audits.

"The timing of the renewed investigation also raises concerns that it may reflect an attempt to chill the Church's discussions of fundamental religious issues with policy implications before the mid-term elections, and in a way that intrudes into core religious practice," Bacon said.

He said that, nearly a year had passed without any communication from the IRS but with Nov. 7 mid-term elections approaching, the agency had suddenly renewed its investigation.

"We will persist in both teaching our core principles and expressing them in our actions," Bacon has said. "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. These values cannot and will not be abandoned solely because there is an election cycle."

Bacon, in a sermon preached Sunday, Sept. 18, told a standing room only congregation of about 900 that the church has "no choice about whether or not to be neutral in the face of dehumanization, injustice and violence. Our faith mandates that always stopping short of endorsing or opposing political candidates, the church neither be silent nor indifferent when there are public policies causing detriment to the least of these."

Free Speech, Religion Threatened?

Marcus S. Owens, lead counsel for All Saints Church, said fighting the audit is crucial to the future of nonprofit and church agencies because of the First Amendment implications of the government's examination. He cited the Aug. 31, 2006 judicial reversal of a similar IRS audit of the NAACP after chairman Julian Bond criticized Bush policies.

"The recent unilateral reversal of the IRS position in the NAACP case raises a serious question as to whether the IRS has any legal basis for continuing its review of All Saints," said Owens, of Caplin and Drysdale. "In the interest of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, it is imperative that the IRS complies with the Congressionally-mandated protections for religious institutions. We simply cannot accept any less in this case."

Raphael Tulino, an IRS spokesperson for Southern California, declined comment on the All Saints audit, because it is an ongoing investigation. But he cited a Feb. 24, 2006 report on the agency's website which indicated nearly 75 percent of 82 similar audits concluded that "tax-exempt organizations, including churches, had engaged in some level of prohibited campaign activity" during the 2004 elections.

IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson said in the report that procedures were changed and investigations are up because of a "disturbing amount of political intervention in the 2004 electoral cycle. As the 2006 electoral season approaches, we are going to provide more and better guidance and move quickly to address prohibited activities."

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.

All Saints' Senior Warden Bob Long said that the 125-year-old congregation's attorneys have been asked to inform the IRS of the congregation's intention to challenge the summons in court.

"This gives us the opportunity to seek the Court's help in protecting our First Amendent rights of free speech and religion, and to call the IRS to task for failing to comply with its own regulations," he said.