IRS to churches: Watch what you preach

Sunday, October 1, 2006

Angry confrontations over the role of churches in politics are now a staple of every election cycle — and this year’s mid-term battles are no exception.

Leaders of the Christian Right are working overtime to mobilize evangelical churches to get out the vote. In response, church-state watchdog groups are warning that those efforts could result in churches’ losing their tax-exempt status.

What Focus on the Family calls nonpartisan appeals to “values voters,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State characterizes as “a church-based political machine on behalf of favored Republican candidates.”

Hovering ominously above the debate are the dreaded IRS agents who have vowed to enforce the section of the tax code that prohibits all tax-exempt charitable organizations, including churches, from participating or intervening in any political campaign for or against any candidate.

But what constitutes “intervening” — short of saying vote for candidate X or support the Y party? IRS rules allow churches to speak out on political issues and permit voter registration and education efforts. But exactly when do those activities become “partisan” in violation of the tax code?

A court may soon give us an answer to that murky question. Last week, All Saints Church in Pasadena, Calif., home to one of the nation’s largest liberal congregations, announced that it would not cooperate with an IRS investigation into an anti-war sermon preached by the Rev. George Regas two days before the 2004 presidential election.

The refusal by All Saints to turn over correspondence, sermons and other documents sets the stage for a possible court case should the IRS decide to pursue the matter. Since IRS investigations into church activities are shrouded in secrecy and usually settled quietly, a court battle would be a rare public discussion about where the “partisan-nonpartisan” line should be drawn for tax-exempt churches.

With so much controversy surrounding evangelical churches in politics, it’s a bit ironic that a liberal church is challenging the IRS. It turns out that many liberals are as outraged as conservatives when the tax collector enters the temple.

The offending sermon at All Saints was passionate and political — but was it “taking sides” in the presidential race? The Rev. Regas was careful to open the sermon with a disclaimer: “I don’t intend to tell you how to vote.” He then went on to imagine what Jesus would say in a three-way debate with John Kerry and George W. Bush. By the end, Regas had concluded that Jesus is very, very unhappy with Bush’s policies on everything from the war in Iraq to tax cuts.

In other words, vote your conscience. But if you care about what Jesus thinks, vote for you-know-who.

Let’s be honest. Isn’t this kind of “wink, wink” endorsement by religious groups commonplace in this and every election? All of those voter guides from advocacy groups are labeled “nonpartisan,” but they are clearly designed to let churchgoers know how to cast their vote. And plenty of churches routinely give a platform to candidates of one party to the exclusion of the other.

This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, Christian “values voters” — liberal and conservative — want to elect people who reflect their values. Tax code notwithstanding, it’s hard for religious leaders to refrain from naming names.

But now that the IRS seems to be cracking down on churches that give even the appearance of partisan activity, clergy are rushing to decipher the regulations. As a result, there’s a cold IRS wind blowing in many sanctuaries this fall.

If the All Saints case goes to court, it may revive efforts by some Republicans in Congress to amend the IRS code to allow political endorsements from the pulpit. Earlier attempts failed, but the high-profile battle between a liberal church and the IRS may enlist some congressional Democrats in the cause.

The challenge is to come up with a narrowly focused “pulpit exemption” that removes restrictions on speech when clergy are speaking to their congregations, but retains prohibitions against religious organizations’ getting involved in partisan political campaigns.

By resisting the investigation into the Regas sermon, All Saints Church is forcing a much-needed public debate on a tax code that many churches find convoluted and confusing. At stake for churches and other houses of worship is the freedom to preach a prophetic word – without being second-guessed by the IRS.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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