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Remember Freedom of Speech?

Behind the cut is an article that appeared on the front page of today's Los Angeles Times. I hope it will be read and passed along.  Think of it as a wake-up call for your own community and your own neighbourhood churches.

A brief disclaimer. I'm not a member of the All Saints congregation, but I've attended Christmas Eve services there, and the AIDS organisation where I volunteered fulltime for over a year had its first home in the All Saints basement.

IRS Orders All Saints to Yield Documents on '04 Political Races

Antiwar remarks at All Saints in Pasadena were made two days before the 2004 election. The church is ordered to hand over records.
By Louis Sahagun, Times Staff Writer
September 16, 2006

Stepping up its probe of allegedly improper campaigning by churches, the Internal Revenue Service on Friday ordered a liberal Pasadena parish to turn over all the documents and e-mails it produced during the 2004 election year with references to political candidates.

All Saints Episcopal Church and its rector, the Rev. Ed Bacon, have until Sept. 29 to present the sermons, newsletters and electronic communications.

The IRS investigation was triggered by an antiwar sermon delivered by its former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, at the church two days before the 2004 presidential election. The summons even requests utility bills to establish costs associated with hosting Regas' speech. Bacon was ordered to testify before IRS officials Oct. 11.

The tax code bars nonprofits, including churches, from endorsing or campaigning against candidates in an election.

Facing the possible loss of his church's tax-exempt status, Bacon said he plans to inform his roughly 3,500 active congregants about the investigation during Sunday's services. Then he plans to seek their advice on whether to comply.

"There is a lot at stake here," Bacon said in an interview. "If the IRS prevails, it will have a chilling effect on the practice of religion in America."

The congregants will have two choices: consent to the IRS request, or decline, which could result in the matter being referred to the Department of Justice and, possibly, U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, All Saints' lead attorney Marcus Owens said.

"The congregation's decision will be clear on Sunday or a few days after that," Owens said. "My guess is they will be unlikely to respond demurely and acquiesce in the government's request at this stage. The issues are too close to the quick of their fundamental religious beliefs."

Members of All Saints have a long history of social activism. The sermon that attracted the IRS' attention was delivered by Regas, who was well-known for opposing the Vietnam War, championing female clergy and supporting gays and lesbians in the church.

The medieval-looking church, just east of City Hall, seems to embody staid, moneyed Old Pasadena, but the liberal outlook goes back decades. During World War II, its rector spoke out against the internment of Japanese Americans. Regas headed the church for 28 years before retiring in 1995.

Exactly how the congregants will make their feelings known on the IRS issue is yet to be decided.

"It may come via e-mail, or as a yea or nay on Sunday, or some other means," said Keith Holeman, a spokesman for the church.

IRS spokesman Frank Fotinatos declined to comment on the matter saying, "We can't confirm or deny any ongoing investigation."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), who unsuccessfully tried to launch a Government Accountability Office investigation into the IRS' probes of churches nationwide last year, called the summons "a very disturbing escalation" of the agency's scrutiny of All Saints.

"I don't want religious organizations to become arms of campaigns," he said. "But they should be able to talk about issues of war and peace without fear of losing tax-exempt status. If they can't, they'll have little to say from the pulpit."

The view was echoed by the Rev. Bob Edgar, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and general secretary of the National Council of Churches USA. "I'm outraged," he said. "Preachers ought to have the liberty to speak truth to power."

"There is a lot more to be done about this, and it may include some actions of nonviolent civil disobedience," Edgar said. "Since 9/11, the IRS, like the FBI, has been moving back to the 1950s and 1960s when a great deal of such activity was propagated against church leaders like Martin Luther King."

In July, the IRS warned 15,000 tax-exempt groups across the nation, including churches and nonprofit organizations, to stay neutral on politics.

At the time, IRS officials said the agency also began expediting investigations into charges of improper campaigning under a new enforcement program, the Political Activity Compliance Initiative. Under it, the IRS will no longer wait for an annual tax return to be filed or for the tax year to end before investigating allegations of wrongful campaigning.

Since 2004, the IRS has investigated more than 200 organizations nationwide.

Federal law prohibits the IRS from releasing the names of those under investigation, but the agency in July said it had 100 cases pending — 40 of them churches.

Among them is the agency's case against the NAACP, which drew the IRS' attention in July 2004, after the organization's chairman, Julian Bond, criticized the Bush administration's policies on civil rights.

All Saints came under IRS investigation shortly after Regas delivered a guest sermon that depicted Jesus in a mock debate with then-presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.

The sermon, which did not endorse or oppose any of the candidates, addressed the moral and religious implications of various social issues facing the nation at the time.

Regas' suggestion that Jesus would have told Bush his preemptive war strategy in Iraq "has led to disaster" prompted a letter from the agency in June 2005 stating that "a reasonable belief exists that you may not be a tax-exempt church."

After nearly a year without communication with the agency, Bacon said he was "quite surprised" Friday when an IRS agent handed him the summons at his church.

In addition to seeking electronic communications, the summons requests "a copy of all oral communications identifying candidates for public office delivered at All Saints Church or at events sponsored by All Saints Church between Jan. 1, 2004, and Nov. 2, 2004."

The summons also asks for various financial records. "Please provide an accounting of all expenditures associated with delivery of the sermon, including allocations of overhead." All Saints officials take that to mean such things as the pay of church staff.

Bacon said the IRS' renewed investigation raises concerns that it may reflect an attempt to quash the church's discussions of "fundamental religious issues with policy implications before the midterm elections, and in a way that intrudes into core religious practices."

"Despite the drain on our finances and the time we will spend defending this attack on the freedoms of religion and speech, All Saints Church will continue without interruption or fear what has distinguished its mission for 125 years," Bacon said.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 17th, 2006 06:46 am (UTC)
This is really frightening. Next they'll be bringing back HUAC.
Sep. 17th, 2006 02:23 pm (UTC)
It does make you wonder, doesn't it? And isn't the timing convenient, with the midterm elections less than two months away and the Republican fighting to keep their hold on both houses of Congress. This is going to be a very interesting story to follow, so don't be surprised if I post more about it.
Sep. 18th, 2006 08:09 pm (UTC)
Remember what I said about no right-wing politicians ever having to fear assasination because there are no left-wing nutjobs? I think I'll add this to my list of points to prove it. Of course, less liberal (to put it mildly) churches, that openly support a candidate's stance on, say, 'just wars' or, I don't know, maybe same-sex marriage, those churches are all under intense and continual scrutiny by the IRS... right? -_-
Sep. 19th, 2006 02:30 am (UTC)
I don't remember the 2004 presidential election very well (I was very busy drowning in an enormous bucket of angst due to the results of the Australian federal elections). However, I thought it was fairly standard for a presidential candidate to go to church (followed by the media) and brieflu address the congregation. Or am I imagining things? How is that not campaigning on the part of churches?
Sep. 20th, 2006 02:01 am (UTC)
I don't think they actually address the congregation. They all certainly attend Sunday services at various churches, though.

What really makes me angry about this (and I wish I'd cut out the newspaper articles when I saw them, is that the evangelical (read pro-Administration) churches have blithely gone about supporting Republican candidates in past elections (campaign literature available in the vestry, anyone?) and that's apparently okay.

Like I say, it's going to be very interesting to follow this story, and if All Saints is really attacked, to see if any of the other liberal denominations in Los Angeles make a stand with them. I also wonder what Cardinal Mahoney thinks about it. He's already gotten on the Bush Administration's bad side by saying he would order the Catholic priests in Los Angeles to disobey any harsh new anti-immigration laws.

And Pasadena isn't just some little unimportant city. It's one of the places where people with Old Money live (as opposed to the Nouveau Riche who call Beverly Hills home. It's the home of CalTech, and next door to JPL (the Jet Propulsion Laboratory). It's full of people who are used to being heard, and having their opinions matter. So, we'll see.
Sep. 20th, 2006 04:37 am (UTC)
Unfortunately I think Pasadena is on the conservative side politically; Beverly Hills is a much more liberal crowd.
Sep. 21st, 2006 09:43 am (UTC)
Pro-administration. When you're on the side of power, you can do no wrong. I'd offer refuge in Canada, but it looks like if Stevie doesn't move on soon, there's going to be nowhere to come to. -_-
Sep. 21st, 2006 09:38 am (UTC)
It's not because the Republicans did it. Really, Laura, do I have to explain everything? ;-)
Sep. 21st, 2006 01:10 pm (UTC)
Of course! It all makes sense now...
Sep. 22nd, 2006 01:54 pm (UTC)
Yes, simple adage helps: when the Republicans are in power, and do something, it's above board. When they're not in power and they try to do something and are thwarted, they are oppressed. And socialists are always dirty and smelly and evil. But mostly smelly, which makes them bad.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )