IRS Looks at Church's Alleged Political Endorsement

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The Internal Revenue Service is investigating a California church for allegedly violating the tax code that prohibits tax-exempt groups from endorsing political candidates. Rev. J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif., discusses the case, which stems from a sermon given at the church just before election day in 2004 criticizing President Bush's administration.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The Internal Revenue Service is investigating a Southern California church and could revoke its tax-exempt status because of a sermon delivered two days before last year's presidential election. The sermon opposed the war in Iraq.

BLOCK: It was delivered by the Reverend George Regas, a visiting preacher at the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena. He imagined what Jesus would say to George W. Bush and John Kerry. Reverend Regas concluded that Jesus would say, `There is sin at the heart of this war against Iraq.'

NORRIS: The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations from endorsing candidates or, quote, "intervening in campaigns." In a letter to the church, the IRS said the sermon may have violated those restrictions. But the Reverend J. Edwin Bacon says that's not so. He's the rector of All Saints Church.

Reverend J. EDWIN BACON (Rector, All Saints Episcopal Church): He made it very, very clear that it was not a sermon in which he was telling people for whom to vote. He acknowledged the fact that there were people gathered for worship who are pro-President Bush and, also, pro-Senator Kerry. And then he preached the content of the sermon and concluded by saying, `Please take the values of Jesus, the prince of peace, the peacemaker, with you into the voting booth.'

NORRIS: Now in the sermon in question, Reverend Regas did not say, `Go out and vote for John Kerry or against President George Bush.' But he did spend most of the sermon criticizing President Bush's record, and he then, as you say, urged people to go out and vote their values. Was he taking a chance there or, if not taking a chance, at least walking a fine line?

Rev. BACON: I think he was proclaiming the core values of Jesus. We took a very, very strong stand against the war in Iraq. I've been preaching against the war in Iraq consistently in season and out of season. So it was not unusual for us to have a guest speaker who was continuing to critique the administration for this war. And we'd been quite critical of Senator Kerry at that point also. I mean, we are definitely a non-partisan, bipartisan church.

NORRIS: Reverend Regas has said several times that he has no regrets about that sermon. In fact, he says he now wishes that he delivered those words with greater intensity. How about you, Reverend? Do you have any regrets or misgivings, in hindsight?

Rev. BACON: I have no regrets. We are simply being a church. What is at stake in America right now is the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion. And this IRS position is actually crossing the line of separation of church and state, asking a church, rather than speak truth to power, to be a spokesperson for whoever is in power. And so we will stay our course. We will be more energetic and muscular in what we do than ever before.

NORRIS: Now I'm sure you have redoubled your effort to familiarize yourself with the tax code and the regulations as they now stand. As you look at that, is it--can you imagine how the IRS could have looked at that sermon and come to the conclusion that you overstepped the boundaries?

Rev. BACON: I think reasonable people can always differ, and I think reasonable people could differ in looking at the sermon. But what is so crystal clear to me is that they have crossed a line saying that there is an issue here of implicit endorsement. If that were allowed to stand, then who's to define `implicit'? We would have preachers in all sorts of religious contexts afraid of, `Is this word going to be interpreted as an implicit endorsement?' That is a horrible imposition, and it's very, very subjective. So we must stay with the regulation that is very well-reasoned that is an injunction against explicit endorsement of candidates.

NORRIS: Reverend Bacon, thank you so much for your time.

Rev. BACON: You're very, very welcome.

NORRIS: Reverend J. Edwin Bacon is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California.

Today an IRS spokeswoman told us that, by law, the IRS cannot discuss the details of the case. She emphasized that there are safeguards in place to prevent politically motivated investigations.

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