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IRS Targets Church for Antiwar Sermon

The Bible says “Blessed are the peacemakers.” But according to the IRS, they may not be tax-exempt.

Rector Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Pasadena, Calif., on Sunday told congregants that the Internal Revenue Service had written a letter warning the church is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status over an anti-war sermon preached two days before the 2004 election.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
The sermon, by guest speaker and rector emeritus George Regas, imagined what Jesus would say if he debated presidential candidates Sen. John Kerry and President George W. Bush.
 
“Mr. President, your doctrine of pre-emptive war is a failed doctrine,” Regas said Jesus would tell Bush. “Forcibly changing the regime of an enemy that posed no imminent threat has led to disaster.”
 
The June 9 letter from the IRS said “reasonable belief exists” that the church may not be tax-exempt under a law that says non-profit organizations receiving tax-exempt benefits may not participate in political campaigns.
 
The letter said the IRS concerns centered on a sermon delivered on Oct. 31, 2004. A Los Angeles Times article described the message as a “searing indictment of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq” and noted the sermon described “tax cuts as inimical to the values of Jesus.”

Regas, a long-time advocate for peace and critic of U.S. policy, said in the sermon that Jesus would confront both Kerry and Bush for going to war in Iraq and for ignoring poverty as a religious issue.
 
“I will tell you what I think of your war,” he said Jesus would say to both candidates. “The sin at the heart of this war against Iraq is your belief that an American life is of more value than an Iraqi life. That an American child is more precious than an Iraqi baby.”
 
In the sermon, which is posted in a sermon archives on the church’s Web site, Regas said he did not intend to tell parishioners how to vote.
 
“Good people of profound faith will be either for George Bush or John Kerry for reasons deeply rooted in their faith,” he said. Both Kerry and Bush, he said, “are devout Christians–one a Roman Catholic and the other a Methodist.”
 
Regas lamented that “prophetic Christianity has lost its voice” in politics. “The religious right has drowned out everyone else,” he said. “Now the faith of Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American.”
 
He also addressed abortion, saying that neither pro-choice nor pro-life people have a right to impose their beliefs and opinion on others.
 
“I am not pro-abortion but pro-choice,” he said. “There is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child. To force the unwanted on the unwilling, to use a woman’s body against her will and choice, is morally repugnant.”
 
Regas said he placed his comments about abortion in a sermon on what Jesus would say to Kerry and Bush because the issue is related to poverty. He quoted research by Christian ethicist Glenn Stassen estimating that abortions increased during Bush’s first term. He said abortions did not decline under the pro-life president because his economic policies resulted in more prospective mothers being unable to afford to support a child.
 
“If Jesus entered this debate, I think these words might come from his lips,” Regas said. “Shame on all those conservative politicians in the nation’s Congress and State Legislatures who have for years so proudly proclaimed their love for children when they were only fetuses–but ignored their needs after they were born.”
 
“It is the cruelest irony how so many anti-abortion politicians have no interest in the things that make a newborn child healthy and beautiful,” he continued. “It violates every standard of decency to force a poor woman to have a child, and then deny her prenatal care.”
 
During 28 years as rector at the church, one of the nation’s largest Episcopal congregations, Regas, who retired in 1995, often focused on issues related to peace and justice.
 
He led the congregation to oppose the Vietnam War. Some conservative church and community members sought to have him removed in 1970 when, with the bombing campaign in Cambodia in full swing, he delivered a sermon titled, “Mr. President, the Jury Is In.” That was in response to a comment by President Nixon that purposefulness and morality of the war were not yet clear.
 
Regas also spoke out against the escalating nuclear arms race and Gulf War during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
 
In 1998 he became executive director of the newly established Regas Institute, intended to counter balance the religious right.
 
In 2001, Regas collaborated with People For the American Way to establish the Progressive Religious Partnership, an interfaith coalition promoting progressive views in the political arena.
 
He strongly opposed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
 
Current Rector Edwin Bacon said in a press release the church has broken no rules and that the IRS concerns impinge on its religious liberty and freedom of speech.
 
Marcus Owen, the church’s attorney, said the IRS complaints are “unsupported by the facts” and that the church has a longstanding policy of nonpartisanship and social action.
 
In 1987 All Saints declared itself a “peace church,” pledging to “engage the systemic, societal and political structures that permeate human misery.”
 
Americans United for Separation of Church and State last year urged the IRS to investigate Southern Baptist pastor Ronnie Floyd and Jerry Falwell for inappropriate partisan speech supporting President Bush’s re-election.
 
On Tuesday AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said singling out the California church, while ignoring “an even more partisan sermon” by Floyd, “gives the public the impression that IRS enforcement is at best arbitrary, or at worst, biased.”
 
Floyd’s July 4, 2004, sermon at First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., praised Bush’s for his war on terrorism and stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, while criticizing Kerry. While not mentioning the candidates by name, Floyd flashed alternating photos of Kerry and Bush on a projection screen while contrasting the two candidates’ positions on social issues.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.