Late last year I blogged about All Saints Episcopal Church in California, the church that found itself faced with an IRS warning about its tax-exmpt status after the pastor gave a sermon against the war in Iraq. Now the IRS is stepping it up, and asking the church to turn over emails and other documents from the 2004 presidential election.
The Internal Revenue Service has ordered a prominent liberal church to turn over documents and e-mails it produced during the 2004 election year that contain references to political candidates.
The IRS is investigating whether All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena violated the federal tax code when its former rector, Rev. George F. Regas, delivered an anti-war sermon on the eve of the last presidential election.
Tax-exempt organizations are barred from intervening in political campaigns and elections, and the church could lose its tax-exempt status.
Rev. Ed Bacon received a summons Thursday ordering the church to present any politically charged sermons, newsletters and electronic communications by Sept 29.
Bacon was ordered to testify before IRS officials Oct. 11. He said he will inform his roughly 3,500 congregants about the investigation at Sunday’s services, and will seek their advice on whether to comply.
“There is a lot at stake here,” Bacon said. “If the IRS prevails, it will have a chilling effect on the practice of religion in America.”
I don’t know if it’s a chilling effect on the practice of religion in America but it may have a chilling effect on the union of religion and politics, especially if the application of IRS regulations cuts both ways. Liberal Christian churches are becoming more active, so now the IRS is taking a closer look at political activity in churches of any political persuasion.
“We became concerned in the 2004 election cycle that we were seeing more political activity among charities, including churches,” said Lois G. Lerner, the director for exempt organizations at the I.R.S. “In fact, of the organizations we looked at, we saw a very high percentage of some improper political activity, and that is really why we have ramped up the program in 2006.”
The I.R.S. issued a report in February that said nearly half of the 110 tax-exempt organizations it investigated after the 2004 elections for improper political activity were churches. Of the 40 churches that the I.R.S. had finished investigating, 37 were found to have violated the law. These churches were given warnings or penalized with excise taxes and, although none lost their tax exemptions, the I.R.S. is still investigating seven more cases against churches.
Capitalizing on the crackdown, the advocacy group Americans United for Separation of Church and State plans to begin mailing letters today to 117,000 clergy members in 11 states warning them to avoid “any activity designed to influence the outcome of a partisan election,” by either supporting or opposing a particular candidate.
“The stakes for these churches are higher than ever before because of the I.R.S.’s new enforcement efforts,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The I.R.S. is taking this very seriously, and I think it’s because the situation was spinning out of control.”
It’s funny to me that the IRS is getting involved now, when religious liberals and moderates are turning up the heat and publishing their own voter guides, but I guess I’ll stop short of suggesting that the IRS is getting involved precisely because of increased activity by religious liberals and conservatives. but there’s a guy I blogged in January about that I think they should reinvestigate long as they’re at it, because the pray-for-pay scheme looks mighty fishy to me.
The Rev. Herbert H. Lusk II is a maverick black minister who took to his pulpit in Philadelphia in 2000 and pledged his support for a Bush presidency, a speech broadcast live at the Republican National Convention. Two years later, Mr. Lusk was criticized when he received a $1 million grant through the president’s new religion-based initiative to run a housing program for the poor.
This Sunday, Mr. Lusk has offered his church in Philadelphia as the site for a major political rally intended to whip up support for the president’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr., whose confirmation hearings begin on Monday.
So, his support for Bush and the Republican agenda got his church a $1 million grant from Bush’s faith-based initiative. That makes his church a little different from other black churches, because few black churches have gotten any of Bush’s faith-based grants.
The Bush administration’s faith-based initiative is reaching only a tiny percentage of the nation’s black churches, most of which have limited capacity to run social programs, hampering the initiative’s promise of empowering those congregations to help the needy, according to a study to be released today.
The national survey of 750 black churches by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that fewer than 3 percent are participating in the program, which funnels at least $2 billion a year in federal social services spending to religious organizations.
Black churches in the Northeast and those with self-identified progressive congregations and liberal theologies were most likely to be taking part in the program, a finding that surprised the researchers, who concluded that the White House has not used the program as a political tool as some critics have suspected.
“Those people who were most worried can exhale,” said Robert M. Franklin, a professor of social ethics at Emory University who worked as a consultant on the survey. “Churches have not been manipulated by Karl Rove. They have not sold out.”
With all due respect to the professor, “liberal theology” is beside the point. Believe me, as someone raised in a solidly Democratic black Baptist home, who only recently discovered that the Bush/Cheney team had gotten to at least one member of my family. Liberal theology has nothing to do with it. It’s social issues that are key. I think there are a lot of very religious black folks who may be very liberal in terms of economic issues, etc., who are equally conservative when it comes to social issues. Just listen to how this minister explained his decision to host the Alito rally.
“I don’t know enough about him to say I actually think he’s the right man to do the job,” Mr. Lusk said in a telephone interview on Wednesday about Judge Alito. “I’m saying I trust a friend of mine who promised me that he would appoint people to the justice system that would be attentive to the needs I care about” — stopping same-sex marriage, assisted suicide and abortions for minors, and supporting prayer and Christmas celebrations in schools.
And remember he’s the one who got a grant. Anyway, I’ve already covered the lack of oversight in Bush’s faith-based initiative and how it’s led to to a cottage industry of tax-supported proselytization for his evangelical supporters.
At the very least it seems like mixing religion, politics, and money is a bad idea, or at least something that needs to be handled with a lot more oversight and accountability than this administration seems able or willing to provide.