Possible revocation of tax-exempt status concerns liberals and conservatives alike.
Sacramento’s Pacific Justice Institute usually lends legal support for conservative religious causes, such as those critical of how public schools teach evolution.
But after news broke last week that the Internal Revenue Service had threatened to revoke the tax exemption of a liberal Pasadena church over an anti-war homily, Pacific Justice Institute President Brad Dacus offered the church legal services – pro bono.
“This case is a serious affront to the freedom of pastors, priests and rabbis who should have the right to express their views from the pulpit,” said Dacus.
All Saints Church declined the offer.
The institute’s gesture reflects the bipartisan concern over an IRS investigation that started last year into the political activities of more than 100 churches, charities and other tax-exempt groups. Investigators are examining whether any of the groups violated a 50-year-old provision barring them from endorsing political candidates. All Saints officials deny they did.
The IRS refuses to identify the other groups under scrutiny; no groups in the Sacramento area said they have been targeted.
The investigation still “sends a shudder through the religious community,” said Bishop Beverly Shamana, the West Sacramento-based leader of the United Methodist Church in Northern California and Nevada. “We are called to live our faith in a way that has wholeness about it. We can’t dissect our political life from our faith life.”
Speaking from the All Saints pulpit in Pasadena three days before the 2004 presidential election, retired rector George Regas told churchgoers President Bush’s war in Iraq was a failure. He did not tell churchgoers whom to vote for.
“Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster,” said Regas, according to a transcript of the speech on All Saints’ Web site.
The speech straddled the murky line between preaching on politics, which is OK by the IRS, and politicking, which is not.
IRS code allows nonprofit organizations – from churches to women’s groups to universities – to speak out on any number of political issues. They also are allowed to do some lobbying.
What they can’t do is anything construed as partisan, according to the IRS.
That means no endorsements, no political fundraising and no statements supporting or opposing candidates.
“If someone just says, ‘Get out and vote,’ that shouldn’t be a problem. If they say, ‘Vote only for a Republican or Democratic ticket,’ that may have crossed the line,” said Bill Steiner, a Sacramento-based spokesman for the IRS.
But where politics ends and partisanship begins isn’t always clear.
“It’s a fuzzy line,” said Jim Davidson, a sociology professor at Purdue University in Indiana who has written extensively about the IRS and churches.
He said it’s usually not as simple as someone saying, “Vote for Candidate A.”
For instance, before this month’s special election, several California churches urged their congregations to support Proposition 73, the failed measure that would have required parents to be notified before their teenager obtained an abortion.
The prohibition against charitable groups supporting candidates grew out of the anti-communist fervor of the 1950s, Davidson said.
On the campaign trail in 1954, two anti-communist groups dogged Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, D-Texas. After learning both groups enjoyed tax exemptions, Johnson called for an amendment to outlaw such groups from partisan activities, Davidson said.
Over the years, several groups have run afoul of the provision.
The IRS fined a group run by televangelist Jerry Falwell and the Christian Broadcasting Network for violations in the 1990s. But only one organization in recent years has had its status revoked, at least in a public way: The Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y.
That group lost its tax break after buying full-page ads in USA Today and the Washington Times in 1992 stating “Christians Beware … Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws.”
More recently, the IRS has focused its attention on the NAACP.
The IRS launched an investigation of the civil rights group in 2004 after its president, Julian Bond, gave a speech critical of Bush.
With such liberal stalwarts as All Saints and the NAACP in the cross hairs, some on the political left have accused the tax agency of an attempt to silence Bush critics.
“It’s ominous,” said the Rev. Larry George, a senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Sacramento. “I doubt (Focus on the Family director and Bush supporter) James Dobson got one of these letters.”
The IRS has denied any political motives, saying investigations are handled by career employees, not political appointees. The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general published a report on the IRS’s investigations in February that found no evidence of political bias.
Dacus pointed out that the IRS targeted conservative groups during the Clinton years.
Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C., predicted in a telephone interview that the outcry would stoke support for his bill to end restrictions on churches endorsing candidates.
“I believe this nation was built on the principle of freedom of speech for all people, including those who happen to be in the clergy,” said Jones, whose legislation has been criticized as a veiled attempt to exploit churches for political gain.
Davidson said free speech arguments like Jones’ miss the point.
“There is no constitutional limit on what churches can or cannot say,” said Davidson. “The issue is the IRS code, and whether taxpayers should be subsidizing groups that get into party politics.”
Nonetheless, Shamana, who opposes the war, said she worried that IRS threats such as those against All Saints would have a chilling effect. She acknowledged there should be a line keeping pastors from delving too deeply into politics. But the pulpit, she said, should not be bullied.
“This is about maintaining our integrity.”
Recent IRS crackdowns on tax-exempt groups
2005: Internal Revenue Service opens inquiry into All Saints Church in Pasadena after a retired rector delivers a speech criticizing the war in Iraq and the development of nuclear weapons.
2004: IRS begins audit of NAACP after the civil rights group’s president delivers a speech critical of President Bush’s judicial appointments and “tax giveaways” to the rich.
1999: The IRS denies the Christian Coalition’s bid for tax-free status, forcing the group to split into two wings, one focused on political causes.
1998: The IRS fines the Christian Broadcasting Network for mobilizing Christians to vote for presidential candidate Pat Robertson in the 1988 election. The amount of the fine was not disclosed.
1995: The IRS revokes the tax-exempt status of the Church at Pierce Creek in Binghamton, N.Y., for buying full-page ads in USA Today in 1992 that stated “Christians Beware … Bill Clinton is promoting policies that are in rebellion to God’s laws.” The ads sought donations to help pay for the ads.
1993: The Old Time Gospel Hour, run by evangelist Jerry Falwell, pays $50,000 in back taxes for raising money for political purposes. The fine was a condition for reinstatement of the group’s tax-exempt status.