ESSAY- Bully pulpit: A tale of two churches

"Neutrality and silence in the face of oppression always aids the oppressors. American pulpits must not cower from speaking truth to power."—The Rev. Ed Bacon, All Saints Episcopal Church

On October 31, 2004, just two days before the last presidential election, George Regas, the retired pastor of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California, was invited to deliver a guest sermon at the church. In his sermon, entitled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," Regas urged the congregation to vote their conscience in the upcoming election. However, he was quick to say of the debate, "Jesus does win! And I don't intend to tell you how to vote."

But Regas also stated, "I believe Jesus would say to Bush and Kerry: ‘War is itself the most extreme form of terrorism. President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq.'" He added, "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."

From there, Regas discussed the responsibility the Bible places on Christians to aid the poor and rescue those who are oppressed. He exhorted those in attendance, "On November 2, vote all your values. Bring a sensitive conscience to that ballot box."

The Rev. Regas didn't get quite the response he was hoping for– at least, not from government officials. The Internal Revenue Service notified the staff of All Saints Episcopal Church of its intent to investigate whether the Rev. Regas' sermon placed the church in jeopardy of losing its tax-exempt status. The IRS alleges that through Regas' sermon, All Saints may have improperly implicated itself in an election by opposing President Bush's candidacy. The IRS code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, such as churches, from supporting or opposing a political candidate.

All Saints and the IRS are now locked in a battle of wills. The IRS has issued a summons to All Saints demanding that the church submit their governing documents, all the information they have relating to Regas' October 2004 sermon and all other sermons that mention a political candidate. In addition, the IRS summons instructs the Rev. Ed Bacon, the current pastor, to appear before an IRS officer to answer questions. To date, All Saints has balked, insisting a court will have to force the church to respond to IRS demands.

Yet amid the allegations and legal issues, members of various faith communities and legal experts alike find themselves puzzled by the IRS' actions. The Rev. Bacon asks, "My only question is why now?" This 80-year-old parish has a long and storied reputation for leaning to the left socially and unashamedly advancing certain social issues through a biblical lens. For years, All Saints pastors have used the pulpit to place various issues within a Christian context, such as the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Vietnam War and the United States' response to 9/11, all without ever having drawn the ire of the IRS.

Some critics have suggested that the IRS may have been politically motivated to target a liberal church. A rabbi who was asked about the All Saints case was clear, "There seems to be an assault upon the pulpit, and it seems to fit a pattern of focusing on those challenging our administration."

Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Association notes that "The IRS is seriously out of kilter and wrong-headed on this one; it's an appalling intrusion and it smacks of intimidation." An Islamic leader in Southern California agreed, stating, "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."

Ed McCaffery, Dean of the USC law school, also sees a problem with the investigation: "This is completely ridiculous, what the IRS is doing," he says. Although McCaffery agrees that the IRS has every right to investigate nonprofits that are breaking the existing rules, he believes Regas' sermon fails to come anywhere near the legal threshold of favoring one candidate over another. 

Since the IRS refuses to disclose which churches are under investigation for similar violations, it is impossible to know whether such discrimination exists. But the IRS' critics may not be far off. According to a recent Los Angeles Times column, Pastor William Turner Jr. of New Revelation Missionary Baptist Church routinely advocates for President Bush and conservative agendas. And according to the L.A.Times article, "He's never been shy about sharing them with the congregation." 

In a letter Turner wrote to President Bush in February 2004, he said, "I salute and support you President Bush and will work untiringly for your reelection." He also wrote an advocacy letter to other African American clergymen in support of Bush's candidacy. Yet Turner's staunch conservative church has never been investigated by the IRS. Even more surprising, Turner's church is only two miles down the road from All Saints. As one reporter wrote, "The tale of these two churches proves just how arbitrary, fickle, and goofy the federal agency's actions can be."

Some congressional representatives are calling for federal reform of the tax code. A bill has been introduced in Congress that would protect the ability of churches to express political views in sermons without fear of losing their tax-exempt status. This law would protect the free speech right of ministers and persons of faith to express how their religion shapes their world view– even from the pulpit.

In a recent sermon to All Saints regarding the IRS investigation of his church entitled "Neighbor Love is Never Neutral," the Rev. Bacon summed up the real issue: "Neutrality, silence and indifference are not an option for us. We must express our conscience in word and in deed or we will lose our soul in addition to losing our way." 

He continued, "If the IRS is successful in chilling the voices in American pulpits and houses of worship, religion in America will lose all relevance and moral authority."

John W. Whitehead is founder of The Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization that provides free legal services to people whose constitutional and human rights have been threatened or violated.