Blogs > Cliopatria > All Saints and the IRS: the Battle Escalates

Sep 18, 2006 4:26 pm


All Saints and the IRS: the Battle Escalates



The big local news here in Pasadena (news that may have much larger implications) is that the IRS has elevated its campaign to revoke my church's tax-exempt status. The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that All Saints Pasadena was hit with a summons late last week, demanding an extraordinary host of documents relating to one particular 2004 sermon preached by our rector emeritus, George Regas.  The Times reported:

(All Saints must surrender) 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.

Though I was not at church yesterday to hear our rector's sermon on the subject, I've spoken to a few friends who were. The Times also had a reporter in the pews,(heck, several Times reporters are long-time parishioners), and a lengthy article about our collective response to the IRS appears in today's paper.

George Regas, the former rector of All Saints (from 1967-1995) comes back to preach at the church a few times a year.  The sermon that launched the IRS investigation was one he preached on October 31, 2004 -- two days before the election.  To my knowledge, I am the only blogger who blogged about the sermon at the time it was given, and probably one of the few regular bloggers in the 'sphere who actually was present that day.   Here's my November 1, 2004 post: God, Voting, and Election Eve.

Rereading my post, I wince.  I don't help the All Saints case much!  Though I voted for John Kerry in that election, I was upset with George Regas for taking what I thought was an exceptionally partisan tone.  His sermon, entitled "How Would Jesus Vote?", left little doubt that Jesus would not vote for the incumbent.  I wrote the day after:

Regas proceeded to tell the jammed sanctuary (high attendance at church yesterday) exactly how Jesus would feel about the Iraq war, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and abortion rights. Jesus, we learned, would consider this war an abomination, the failure to disarm the gravest of contemporary sins, the latest round of tax cuts as an assault on the poor, and the right to abortion necessary in order to save lives. Except for fleeting references to Micah 6:8 (we liberals do love that text), no Scripture was cited to support these positions, but that didn't seem to matter. George Regas was certain of how Jesus would stand on all of these complex modern issues, and by the time he was done, there was little doubt how Regas thought Jesus wanted us to vote.

I didn't put it in bold in the original post.  I am quite confident (or am I?) that no one from the IRS read this post; the LA Times ran an article on the Regas sermon, and that is surely the source of the inquiry.  I wrote at the time that since Regas didn't explicitly endorse Kerry, I didn't think he had violated federal regulatory guidelines.  But I am not a lawyer, and am unfamiliar with the subtleties of the tax code and what non-profits are permitted to say and do.

(For what it's worth, I'm enough of an Anabaptist that before listening to a sermon on how Jesus would vote, I'd want to hear a sermon on whether or not he would participate in the electoral process at all!  It may not be a sin to vote, but it's not a sin not to vote either -- the Kingdom of the Lamb is not of this world, and the transforming of hearts and minds will happen through inner conversions, not elections.  I wrote as much after listening to the Regas sermon. From my November 1, 2004 post:

Ultimately, Bush and Kerry are competing to be the most powerful prince in the contemporary world's greatest principality. And while Christians can and should take an active interest in the affairs of this world, there is no question that real justice, real transformation, and real hope cannot come from the princes of this world.)

All Saints is now trying to decide whether or not to comply with the IRS summons.  The general sense at this early point in the process is that most folks associated with the church do not want to comply.  I was on the Vestry, the governing body of the church, from 2002-2003 (I resigned for many, many reasons not worth going into here).  I know most of the folks on the Vestry now, and I know Ed Bacon, our rector, quite well.  I can't predict the future, but I will be very surprised if our church doesn't end up fighting the IRS in court over this summons.  If I were on the Vestry still, I would certainly be among those who would vote to take on the government.

Again, I am not a lawyer.  Again, I disagreed with most of George Regas' original sermon.  But there's an enormous difference between an explicit endorsement of a candidate ("Vote for Kerry!") and an implicit endorsement of a candidate ("Jesus wouldn't have supported the invasion of Iraq").  The IRS code does not demand quietism and passivity from churches.  Our friends on the religious right regularly fulminate about "anti-family" politicians from the pulpit; they usually stop just short of telling their congregants how to vote.  They don't get investigated.  But if this IRS investigation proceeds, and a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008 -- it may not be long before a flurry of summonses are falling into the laps of conservative preachers who are deemed to have "crossed the line."

I predict that despite a deep animus towards the theological and political orientation of the All Saints community, we are about to see a major outpouring of support from evangelicals and religious conservatives well to our right.   If the IRS can go after All Saints Pasadena during a Republican Administration, they can easily go after Jerry Falwell's megachurch when the political tides turn again, as they inevitably will sooner or later.  And though I was annoyed with Regas' sermon, I think it's absolutely vital that churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious and spiritual institutions feel free to preach on the relationship of faith and politics.  It's one thing to say you can't endorse a specific candidate.  But it's another to say you can no longer proclaim that "Jesus is against war."  (Or, for my right-wing friends, "Jesus is against homosexuality.")  If these statements are construed by the IRS as political speech that can cost a church its tax-exempt status, then all people of faith, regardless of where they fall on the conservative-liberal spectrum, are under attack.

I may no longer be on the All Saints Vestry.  But I am very active with the youth group.  I am sure we'll be talking with our teenagers about this, and asking them to consider the cost of defying the government.  Believe it or not, even in this liberal bastion we do regularly talk with our kids about the cost of discipleship.  I suspect that all of us in the All Saints Pasadena family are about to learn a tough lesson about that cost.  I am hopeful that we will prevail in the courts should this case progress.  But I am absolutely confident that whatever the outcome of this investigation, All Saints will continue to be a powerful, prophetic community.  Though I am often at odds with those who lead my church, I stand with them today, and ask those who belong to other faith communities to offer support to us.


comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:


Ralph E. Luker - 9/20/2006

Well, yah. If I were both wrong and getting beaten because of it, I'd rethink fundamentals.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/20/2006

If I'm not mistaken, Alan isn't talking about tax emption for personal charitable giving. I think that he is talking about eliminating tax exemption of the property of churches, mosques, and synagogues. If you tax them at commercial or residential housing, the institutions are going to have a very hard time finding the resources to continue housing the many social services that they currently do.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/20/2006

Would you adjust your convictions because they were unpopular?

Tactics are another matter. Sometimes.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Ah, you seem to like taking things personally. How many elections in a row do you have to lose before you adjust your convictions to reality?


Jonathan Dresner - 9/19/2006

The discussion really isn't about your own dispositions (as I indicated early on in suggesting that perhaps they were dispositions you shared with much of academe)

So it is about my dispositions, except when I don't have them?

For the record, I think Obama's wrong, not to mention a tad overrated at the moment.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Pardon me, but you've confused a query with an assertion. There's a very strong bias to secularization in academe and I was asking whether your position didn't reflect that bias more fully than it reflected historical realities. As for evidence, I pointed to instances challenging to a teleology of secularism. The discussion really isn't about your own dispositions (as I indicated early on in suggesting that perhaps they were dispositions you shared with much of academe). The radical secularization of the Soviet sphere is unlikely to return. The cosmopolitan regime of early post-colonial India probably won't return without having touched base with the realities of India's deeply Hindu and deeply Muslim culture. As Barak Obama has recently pointed out, a Democratic Party that assumes that the United States has a secular future probably condemns itself to being the party in opposition. And so on.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/19/2006

I think one of the problems driving this is a conflation of the religious functions of religious institutions and the social effects of religious actors.

Unless we're talking about eliminating all tax breaks for charitable giving, it would be pretty easy to retain the distributed social welfare functions of religious-based charities (and presumably religions would continue to value charity and mutual aid), with a minimum of organizational legerdemain.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Fine. I object to its totalizing tendency.


Alan Allport - 9/19/2006

The advantage of dispersed sources of support and loyalty is that, if one fails you, you can go elsewhere.

Go West, young man? Not always easy. Or desirable. I like power with attributable responsibility.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

The advantage of dispersed sources of support and loyalty is that, if one fails you, you can go elsewhere. Your totalizing system offers no alternative to itself.


Alan Allport - 9/19/2006

If the state supplies all needs, the state can cut them off, as well.

Of course it can. But a democratic state is subject to voter scrutiny; it has institutional checks and balances; it has, as you yourself pointed out, constitutional precedents and obligations which it is compelled to address. That it does not always do these things perfectly or even well does not alter their importance as aspirations in law. Churches are under no similar obligation to the community as a whole. They can raise or lower the drawbridges as they see fit without appeal to law. It's not clear to me that petty parochial tyrannies are necessarily any better than large national ones - rather worse, perhaps, because much less visible.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

If the state supplies all needs, the state can cut them off, as well. The power to feed, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy. I much prefer dispersed sources of social sustenance to a monolithic state-centered system. Where you go astray is the "private beliefs or attitudes" thing. That dismisses religion so far as you are concerned, but is the state obliged to feed, clothe, medicate, and house traitors, subversives, social misfits, criminals, political opponents -- all alike? In prison or out? You genuflect to the state. I don't.


Alan Allport - 9/19/2006

Why do you want all loyalty centered in the state, anyway?

I don't - I thought that was exactly my point. The state provides (or should provide) access to public goods to all its citizens irrespective of their private beliefs or attitudes - there is no Test Act, implicit or otherwise. Religious organizations are under no such obligation. I don't think they should be; but that's also why they shouldn't be in the business of providing a welfare state-by-default. Anecdotal accounts of inclusive church activities change nothing. Just as we shouldn't rely on the largesse of Lady Bountiful, whose charity ultimately is a matter of personal whim, it's unwise to rely on the good works of churches which can qualify or withdraw the benefits they offer at the drop of a hat (or the absence of a genuflection).


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Here. I'll destroy your point again:
"... that ought properly to lie with a secular state."
Oh piffle, Alan. That's just nonsense. What structure of reality empowers the "ought" in that sentence? a) There's no perfectly sanitized "secular state" anywhere in sight. b) why do you want all loyalty centered in the state, anyway? c) what access are Girl Scouts denying 10 year old Sally Atheist or AA denying 45 year old Sober Sid or senior citizens center denying 75 year old Sara Atheist?


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Heck no. It doesn't stand. You haven't responded to me at 9:13 a.m., perhaps because the comment got misplaced.


Alan Allport - 9/19/2006

I apologize if I have trodden on the memory of any Benedictines wandering around the mid-Atlantic. My point, I think, stands: that Americans have allowed their social services to become a theocratical subcontract, to the ultimate disservice of all.


Ben W. Brumfield - 9/19/2006

They should never have been allowed to take over responsibilities that ought properly to lie with a secular state.

And I thought you were studying History. You know quite well that those responsibilities have been transferred from voluntary and religious organizations to the state since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and rarely in the opposite direction.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

"... that ought properly to lie with a secular state."
Oh piffle, Alan. That's just nonsense. What structure of reality empowers the "ought" in that sentence? a) There's no perfectly sanitized "secular state" anywhere in sight. b) why do you want all loyalty centered in the state, anyway? c) what access are Girl Scouts denying 10 year old Sally Atheist or AA denying 45 year old Sober Sid or senior citizens center denying 75 year old Sara Atheist?


Alan Allport - 9/19/2006

I think it is very healthy that other centers of loyalty, like churches, synagogues, etc, house Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, day care and senior citizens centers, and other voluntary social service activities

Yes, but however benignly these are operated, they ultimately only allow access to resources based on a supernatural loyalty oath - a rejection of the idea of equal citizenship irrespective of beliefs. Which is why they should never have been allowed to take over responsibilities that ought properly to lie with a secular state.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/19/2006

That would be nice, wouldn't it?


Jonathan Dresner - 9/19/2006

I am, as Dave Davisson so aptly put it in his manifesto, abderitic, but that doesn't mean that I'm -- pardon the expression -- agnostic. Like the man said about empires, you can't not have an opinion about something so important.

You know as well as I do that there are differences between long-term and short-term trends, and you're the one who keeps insisting without evidence that I have a teleological view of secularism in history. It may well be that the great wave of secularity which accompanied modernity was an abberation, like Enlightened Monarchs a short-lived (in the grand scheme) experiment in human organization, but neither of us can say for sure yet.

I can say, though, that religious institutions retained and even expanded their rights under secular governments, and I find that curious, historically. I'm sorry that nobody else here seems to want to move beyond the political thrashing to address that.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Well, I think that many academic people (certainly not you alone) see history as moving toward secular ends and, if you believe that, it's very likely to shape your interpretation of historical developments. That seems to me to be an illusion. It certainly doesn't account for Iran's move from a relatively secular regime under the Shah to the current regime, nor does it seem to allow for Iraq, which seems almost certain to have a more religious regime than it had under Saddam. I'm not sure how one counts these things, but India's installation of a strongly Hindu regime seems a reversal from the more secular regime of the early post-colonial period. And how does the collapse of radical secularity in the Soviet sphere play into that reading of things?


Jonathan Dresner - 9/19/2006

For those interested, here is the NPR report on the issue.

It raises most of the predictable issues -- definitions, fairness, selective enforcement, history of All Saints -- and doesn't add too much, but it's interesting to see the exposure.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Sorry, I meant to say that the state ought to play a more constructive role in medical care than it currently does.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/19/2006

I admit that I think secularity in government is a good thing, but I don't at all think it's an inevitable one (otherwise I'd be much more blase about these issues, honestly), nor anything close to universal at this point.

Many governments now are more secular than they were a few centuries ago: I'm not imposing any kind of agenda here, but observing a trend. Many governments that are now (all or mostly) secular used to have state sponsored religions, and many governments, secularized and otherwise, support preferred religious institutions. The difference is that more secularized governments support all (or most, anyway) religious institutions with benefits which used to be reserved for state-selected religions.

I'm just repeating myself. How is this a teleology? I'm trying to open up an historical inquiry, instead of devolving into another of our pointless "secular public sphere" rounds.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Well, on some issues, I quite agree with you. On the other hand, the welfare state does move in the direction of the totalizing state and I think that the impulse to resist that is a healthy one. Because the American state is so powerful, I think it is very healthy that other centers of loyalty, like churches, synagogues, etc, house Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, day care and senior citizens centers, and other voluntary social service activities -- rather than bringing them under a state-controlled community center.


Alan Allport - 9/19/2006

All of this is true in practice of course, Ralph, but it says more about the sorry lack of a proper welfare state in this country than it does about the wisdom of perpetually subsidizing religion.


Hugo Schwyzer - 9/19/2006

Bingo, Ralph. Of course, some of those who favor taxing religious institutions think all of these services ought to be offered by the state rather than by the church, and thus would like to generate more tax revenue to pay for an expansion of social services.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

Yes, of course Great Britain has a constitution and it says what the crown in parliament says that it says as it applies a long tradition of common understandings. I think my point really was that I prefer having something on paper that George Bush and Congress can be held accountable to.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/19/2006

well, the first thing to go, of course, wouldn't be the churches themselves but the, often secular, services that they provide that I ennumerated above. they'd have to go because they meet in churches where they pay little or nothing for overhead and the congregation would have to figure out how to cut its overhead and raise income in order to pay taxes. If you can think of spaces for tens of thousands of voluntary non-profit social service activities all over the country to go, where they would pay little or no overhead, then go right ahead and tax the churches, synagogues, and mosques. I can think of lots of areas where the church/state separation ought to be clearer -- making ministers, rabbis, priests, etc agents of the state in performing marriages, for instance, I've argued is a mistake. It means that religious communities are not free to decide for themselves who can get married. That, it seems to me, is a whole lot more salient issue that tax-exempt status for churches. Why not tax schools and hospitals, as well?


Oscar Chamberlain - 9/18/2006

Ralph

A few points.

1. I should have made clear that the possible loss of confidence I spoke of was limited to those who wanted more government support for religion.

2. I am well aware that compulsory school prayer does no harm. I had it in my public schools. Based on that experience if I really wanted to make more agnostics, I would support mandatory Christian prayer in all public schools.

3. You did not address my basic point, which is this: is it possible that eliminating tax deuctible status for churches would, after some time for adjustment, make for stronger churches just as the withdrawal of tax support did in the early 19th century?


Ralph E. Luker - 9/18/2006

Non-sense, Oscar. You may think it (and Jewish and Muslim) self-confidence is ebbing, but that wouldn't have anything to do with a teleology of secularism that you hold because, well, because you are a non-believer. Prayer in public schools wouldn't be an innovation. We had 12 years of it in Kentucky's public schools and it didn't crush anybody's little psyche. You've already bought into the relgious right's agenda by suggesting that "intelligent design" is somehow a part of the Christian agenda. I haven't seen anything distinctly Christian about it. In other words, he aid and abet the agenda of the religious right by the very way you approach issues. You fulfill their nightmares and cede them ground that they don't rightly deserve.


Oscar Chamberlain - 9/18/2006

Maybe religions would be better off if they were not tax exempt. Consider the transition from state support to no support in the days of the early republic. Many religious leaders cried doom, and it most surely cost many congregations money. Yet, looking back a generation later, most religious leaders thought that loss a most fortunate fall that released a tremendous new energy.

Put differently, is the press for more and more tax support of religious activities today--for example, religious schooling, intelligent design curriculum, and official public school prayers-- an expression of strength or a sign that self-confidence among Christian leaders is actually ebbing?


Alan Allport - 9/18/2006

At least we have one.

Huh? Without wishing to enter a series of your-country-dresses-you-funny retorts, I would point out that Great Britain most certainly does have a constitution, one that has operated quite successfully for several hundred years.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/18/2006

At least we have one. One shudders to think how things might be if the constitution was whatever the Congress said it was -- as is the case in some unnamed but benighted places.


Alan Allport - 9/18/2006

"An explicitly secular nation-state" may express your desiderata, but it hardly reflects reality.

Hey, I said it was more logical. I didn't say it was politically realistic. Not my fault if Americans don't take their own constitution seriously ...


Ralph E. Luker - 9/18/2006

I'd be fairly suspicious of this kind of generalization. I have no doubt but that these things are very local (i.e., national) in their development and I'd suspect such a generalization as reflecting an implicit teleology of secularization rather than a sort of universal principle of how things must have come to be.


Jonathan Dresner - 9/18/2006

It's my impression that religious tax exemptions are an outgrowth of practices from the days when churches were not terribly separate from the state. States used sponsorship of religion -- and tax exemption was a great boon -- as a form of legitimacy-building. It's true in Asia as well as Europe (Buddhism in East Asia would have been a long time growing slowly were it not for the doctrine of the Dharma-wheel-turning-King) and it's interesting to see how it's morphed into something very different under the pluralistic secular governments.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/18/2006

"an explicitly secular nation-state" may express your desiderata, but it hardly reflects reality. See, for example, Sidney Mead, _The Nation With the Soul of a Church_. I doubt you've been bothered with proselytizers lately, but you'd have a very hard time replacing all the day-care centers, food pantries, AA meeting places, shelters for street people, counseling centers, etc, etc, that they house, if you insisted on taxing the property of churches, synagogues, and mosques at the same rates that residential or commercial properties are taxed.


Alan Allport - 9/18/2006

I said the *default* assumption. I'm not averse to the idea of churches receiving tax exemption if it can be shown that they're performing a public good. I am not convinced that the proselytization of faith, in and of itself, ought to count as such in an explicitly secular nation-state. I'm all in favor of the First Amendment - and, like many Anglicans BTW, a supporter of the disestablishment of the COE. I just don't see why the freedom to worship demands a complementary subsidy from the taxpayer.


Ralph E. Luker - 9/18/2006

I just find it fascinating, Alan, that an atheist (and refugee from England's establishment, no less) naturally thinks that the equitable thing is to abolishment tax-exempt status for religious institutions. I suppose, in fairness, you'd also want to do that for educational institutions, as well.


Alan Allport - 9/18/2006

... it would be more logical to revoke the default tax-exempt status of churches, period.

History News Network