Several weeks ago, my friend Steve and I exchanged some emails about the Internal Revenue Service’s investigation of a church with a view to removing its tax exempt status; the leaders of the church in question had endorsed particular right-wing political candidates from the pulpit.
Now, Steve and I have not directly discussed political allegiances, but I suspect our votes would cancel each other out in many cases. But the idea of using the tax exempt status as a polical weapon made both of us queasy, because of the interpretation involved in determining what actually constituted prohibited speech.
Certainly there’s statements that would clearly constitute endorsement (“God says, ‘Vote for X’) and statements that would clearly not constitute endorsement (“Elections are good.”), but there’s a hell of a lot of gray in between those two extremes.
Here’s IRS Publication 557 on this topic. See pages 45-47.
Here’s a pamphlet defending the practice of investisgating tax exempt status for political speech(see pages 5 and 6 for the article).
Now the kind of thing Steve and I feared seems to be coming to pass, according to the L. A. Times:
The Internal Revenue Service has warned one of Southern California’s largest and most liberal churches that it is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election.
Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.
In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991’s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support (emphasis added).
But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine. Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster.”
On June 9, the church received a letter from the IRS stating that “a reasonable belief exists that you may not be tax-exempt as a church â€¦ ” The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns and elections.
The letter went on to say that “our concerns are based on a Nov. 1, 2004, newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times and a sermon presented at the All Saints Church discussed in the article.”
I urge you to read the entire story to see how resoundingly the pastor’s action fall in the gray area I mentioned above.