Conservative Christians are speaking up in defense of a liberal church accused by the Internal Revenue Service of “intervening in an election.”
All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, has been threatened with possible loss of its tax-exempt status because of an October 31, 2004, guest sermon preached there by a retired rector of the church. The rector spoke out sharply against the war in Iraq and tax cuts and finished by urging congregants to “vote their values.”
“We’ve been surprised and gratified by the support All Saints has received from other churches nationwide,” said communications director Keith Holeman. “We’re more progressive than many churches. But of the hundreds of phone calls we’ve received so far, only three or four have been negative.”
Chalcedon has reported on other attempts to muzzle preachers in the pulpit. Last summer, left-wing organizations sent operatives to conservative churches and threatened to report to the IRS any “political speech” made by pastors (see “Leftists Putting a Scare into Pastors?” to the right). In Sweden, a pastor faces a six-month jail term for speaking out against homosexuality (see related story on right).
All Saints has retained a lawyer, Marcus Owens, to defend it from the IRS. Owens is a former head of the IRS Exempt Organizations Division. He was not available for comment, but in a letter to the IRS posted on the church’s website, he wrote, “[T]his case implicates First Amendment principles of religious freedom and freedom of speech; indeed, it threatens core values which the congregation of the Church holds dear … It seems 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.”
The IRS has proposed that All Saints “confess to wrongdoing,” but “we said, ‘No thank you!’” said Bob Long, the church’s senior warden.
“They said they were inclined to proceed against us, but would be willing to recommend that the matter be wrapped up internally, if we confessed,” Long said. “For us to give them the kind of confession they want would undercut our commitment to preaching the gospel.”
Although he has examined all the communications from the IRS so far, Long said he cannot see what All Saints has done to violate the law. “It’s only that particular sermon that they object to: that’s the beginning and the end of it,” he said. “I don’t understand their problem with it. There are plenty of examples out there of churches going much further than we did. I don’t know why they’re singling us out.”
Long cited “the tremendous outpouring of emails from around the country” in support of the church’s right to preach as it sees fit, without interference from the government.
“It’s remarkable how this issue has crossed the divide between liberal and conservative churches,” he said. “The IRS has united us. Now maybe we can unite around some other issues, too.”
The IRS’ Response
The church’s website also posts a June 9 letter from R.C. Johnson, director of Exempt Organizations Examinations, IRS, citing “your involvement in activities which may constitute political campaign intervention prohibited under IRC section 501(c)(3)” which “could cause you to lose your tax exempt status and it could subject you to an excise tax … on the amount of funds spent on that activity.”
The letter advises the church to contact Pat Schneiders, Exempt Organizations specialist at the IRS’ Des Moines, Iowa, office.
Chalcedon contacted Ms. Schneiders, but she said she was not authorized to answer questions — or even hear them.
We made other phone calls to various IRS officials at several offices, trying to ascertain how the preaching of a sermon constituted “intervention in a political campaign.” Finally Christopher Miller, IRS media relations, provided some general information. Disclosure laws, he said, forbid him to discuss the particulars of any case.
According to an IRS information paper issued last year, churches “are prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for public offices.” A church cannot (1) endorse any candidates, (2) make donations to their campaigns, (3) engage in fundraising, (4) distribute statements, or (5) “become involved in any other activities that may be beneficial or detrimental to any candidate” (emphasis added).
“Whether an organization is engaging in prohibited political campaign activity depends upon all the facts and circumstances in each case,” the paper says. “The federal courts have upheld this prohibition on political campaign activity.”
Another information paper states that on April 28, 2004, “the IRS issued an advisory to charities that they should be careful that their efforts to educate voters comply with federal requirements concerning political campaign activities.” The IRS sent a similar reminder to the nation’s political parties.
“Over the course of the year,” the paper says, “the IRS has reviewed information alleging improper political intervention by more than 100 charities, churches, and other tax-exempt groups.
“Because of heightened concerns about improper political activities during the election season, the IRS created a committee of career civil servants who are experts in the tax-exempt area to review the allegations. This team selected more than 60 cases that merited examination. Over the last several months, the IRS has been contacting these organizations asking for information about alleged improper political activities.
“While under law the IRS cannot disclose the names of these groups, the organizations being examined represent a broad cross-section of the tax-exempt community and a wide range of viewpoints [emphasis added]. About a third of the groups are churches.”
“It Applies to All of Us”
It’s not likely anytime soon that Biblically faithful Christians will be called to unite with a “progressive” church like All Saints, which blesses same-sex unions, supports abortion, and calls for government action to eradicate poverty and racism. The few negative comments All Saints has received are in the vein, “It serves you right,” Long said.
But in this case the church’s doctrine, misguided as we think it is on many points, is not the issue.
The guest preacher did not advise congregants to vote for any particular candidate or party. He opposed the war and tax cuts, on what he believed to be solid religious grounds. In urging his flock to “vote your values,” he said only what any pastor would be expected to say.
Nor is this a pure free speech issue. We all have freedom of speech, but we’re not all entitled to tax exemption.
But it is very much a matter of the state attempting to restrict the free exercise of religion, in violation of the First Amendment.
When our ox was being gored this summer, when Barry Lynn of “Americans United” threatened to sic the IRS on preachers in conservative churches, we objected strenuously. This is exactly what has been done to All Saints Church: someone didn’t like the sermon and sent a newspaper clipping about it to the IRS — as R.C. Johnson reveals in his letter to the church.
As Long rightly observed, “This is something all churches should be concerned about. It applies to all of us.”
It certainly does. Historically, America’s churches have often been in the frontlines of the culture wars. The church was the cradle of the abolition movement and the midwife to the civil rights movement — not to mention the Christian Reconstruction movement.
If anything, we believe the church should “intervene” more often in political campaigns. For the church to be silent is to abrogate its duty to teach and prophesy. For “religion” to be strictly private is to abandon society to the all-devouring pseudoreligion of secular humanism.
As R.J. Rushdoony taught for many years, there is no such thing as government “neutrality” to religion. The state cannot help being either friendly or hostile to religion. Christianity and secularism contend in a zero-sum game in America: the government cannot restrict one without promoting the other.