Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sermon gets church in trouble with the IRS

The LA Times reported a few days ago about an IRS investigation of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California. Allegedly, the former rector had spoken about the Iraq war in one of his sermons in 2004. Marcus Owens, the church's tax attorney and a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, called it "ludicrous to suggest that a pastor cannot preach about the value of promoting peace simply because the nation happens to be at war during an election season." Most religious organizations across the U.S. have decried the actions of the IRS.

The federal tax code allows religious groups to lobby and speak out on public issues, but they are not supposed to engage in partisan politics or endorse candidates.

The IRS investigated Reverend Ronnie Floyd of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Arkansas, after complaints about a sermon in 2004 where he praised George W. Bush and lambasted John Kerry. The IRS found no cause to pursue that allegation. Conservative televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson openly backed George W. Bush in 2004, but the IRS failed to investigate their tax-exempt status.

Earlier this year, Pat Robertson called for the United States to assassinate Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, yet the IRS still did not question his organization’s tax-exempt status.

Many conservative churches want to change the tax law so they can back candidates. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), has repeatedly introduced legislation to do exactly that. However, the National Council of Churches is opposed to such legislation.

The actions of the IRS against All Saints seem politically suspicious considering the church's liberal reputation and long record of political activism, and considering that no conservative churches have been threatened. Why is it that opponents of Bush administration policies have crossed the line, but supporters are safe? Can anyone say Richard Nixon? Anyone?

I believe that all churches, whether left or right, have a responsibility to provide moral guidance on the important issues of the day, as long as they do not become full-time lobbyists and do not have a "vote for" sign out front. That being said, it is still critically important for the IRS and the Bush administration to come clean about why All Saints has been singled out, and why Falwell and Robertson are untouchable.

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