PASADENA, Calif. – An Episcopal church’s decision Thursday not to cooperate with an IRS investigation into an anti-war sermon delivered before the 2004 presidential election sets up a high-profile confrontation between the liberal congregation and the IRS, which usually keeps such inquiries private.
The leaders of the 3,500-member All Saints Church voted unanimously to resist an order to turn over documents related to the sermon, which was given just two days before the election. The decision means the IRS must decide whether to ask the Justice Department to pursue the case in court. A judge would then rule on the validity of the agency’s demands.
Bob Long, the senior warden at All Saints, said the 26-member vestry voted unanimously early Thursday to reject the IRS’ demands, which included an interview with the rector, copies of e-mails and internal correspondence and utility bills.
“We’re going to put it in their court – and in a court of law – so that we can get an adjudication to some very fundamental issues here that we see as an intolerable infringement of rights,” Long said.
IRS spokesman Terry Lemon said he could not comment on the specific case and would not say whether the agency would request a court hearing. He instead issued a statement describing the procedure during such an investigation.
“If the entity ultimately declines to answer the summons, the IRS can ask the Justice Department to pursue the case in court,” the statement read.
The dispute has attracted the attention of religious leaders on the right and left, who say the IRS’ actions could make it more difficult for them to speak out on moral issues such as gay marriage and abortion during the midterm election campaign.
Under federal tax law, church officials can legally discuss politics, but to retain tax-exempt status they cannot endorse candidates or parties. Most who do so receive a warning.
The IRS, however, has promised tougher enforcement of the law during this year’s mid-term elections and in the 2008 election cycle.
The agency completed investigations of 90 tax-exempt churches and charities in 2004 and found wrongdoing in 70 percent of the cases. Four – none of them churches – lost their tax-exempt status. In 2005, the agency began audits of 70 churches and charities and has 40 cases pending so far this year.
Earlier this week, the conservative Alliance Defense Fund and the Family Research Council sent letters to thousands of pastors informing them about their right to speak to congregations on issues in this year’s elections, including abortion and gay marriage.
In recent years, Republicans in particular have teamed with conservative evangelical leaders to motivate would-be voters, a strategy credited with helping President Bush win re-election.
The dispute with All Saints centers on a sermon titled “If Jesus Debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush” that was delivered by guest pastor Rev. George Regas on Oct. 31, 2004. Though he did not endorse either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, he said Jesus would condemn the Iraq war and Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war.
“I believe Jesus would say to Bush and Kerry: ‘War is itself the most extreme form of terrorism. President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq,'” Regas said, according to a transcript.
The IRS reprimanded the church in June 2005 and asked that it promise to be more careful. Church officials refused.
Last week, the IRS demanded documents and an interview with the rector by the end of the month.
According to the IRS, the only church ever to be stripped of its tax-exempt status for partisan politicking was the Church at Pierce Creek near Binghamton, N.Y., which was penalized in 1995 after running full-page ads against President Clinton in USA Today and The Washington Times in 1992 during election season.
All Saints member Sally Howard, of West Hollywood, said she agreed with the vestry’s decision.
“The church should not back down from speaking to issues of peace and justice. And if that means that the church is going to face loss of its tax-exempt status, then that will be,” she said. “We do not want to be in that position of being neutral or being silent because of the political ramifications.”
Howard said Regas never urged parishioners to vote for particular candidates.
“He has never, and he didn’t that day, he’s never stated that a particular person should be voted for,” she said.