Although the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will not comment on the dispute, an Episcopal church in Pasadena, Calif., has been threatened with the loss of its tax-exempt status. The Associated Press reports that the church has received demands from the IRS over an anti-war sermon delivered shortly before the 2004 presidential election.
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The sermon, titled “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush”, was given on Oct. 31, 2004, by guest rector, the Rev. George Regas. Regas was a former rector of the church. The vestry of the church has voted unanimously to resist these government demands, according to the Associated Press.
The IRS has called the 2004 anti-war sermon into question concerning the church’s federal tax status. The church and its rector received a list of 13 questions probing their core religious practices on July 24, after some 10 months of silence on the case. The church responded with a request for the IRS to clarify the intentions of their request due to “wide-ranging First Amendment implications,” according to the Pasadena Star-News.
Rev. Ed Bacon told the Pasadena Star-News, “We are quite surprised to recieve this latest notice from the IRS after nearly a year without any communication from them. Despite the drain on our finances and the time we spend defending this attack of the freedoms of religion and speech, All Saints Church will continue without interruption or fear what has distinguished its mission for 125 years.”
The church’s senior warden Bob Long, “We’re going to put it in their court and in a court of law so that we can get an adjudication to some very fundemental issue here that we see as an intolerable infringement of rights,” according to the Associated Press.
The IRS has stated that they may be taking the church to court, saving the church’s own decision to request a court hearing, according to IRS spokesman Terry Lemons, speaking to the Associated Press. Lemons said, “We recognize the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and religion, but there is no constitutional right to be exempt from federal taxation.”
In 2004, the IRS investigated 90 tax-exempt charities and churches. After finding violations in 70 percent of the cases, four charities lost their tax-exempt status, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The controversial outcome is being watched by left and right-wing religious leaders as it could spell difficulty for any churches to speak to moral issues, according to the Associated Press. Under federal tax law, politics can be discussed within churches legally, except that candidates or parties cannot be endorsed in order for a church to retain its tax-exempt status.
Muslim Public Affairs Council senior advisor Maher Hathout told the Associated Press, “We smell intimidation, it smells rotten, and we should not allow any aspect of intimidation to be directed to any member of our great country.”