A liberal Pasadena church facing an IRS investigation over alleged politicking sounded a defiant note Sunday, with its leaders and many congregants saying the probe amounted to an assault on their constitutional rights and that they were inclined to defy the agency's request for documents.
"These people are offended," said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, after delivering an impassioned sermon about the investigation to a standing-room-only crowd of about 900. "Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been assaulted by this act of the IRS, and I think my people want to be heard in court."
Bacon said he would consult with attorneys and church officials before deciding a course of action but that the vast majority of parishioners with whom he spoke Sunday thought the church should resist a summons demanding copies of newsletters, e-mails and other records.
"I believe we should respectfully decline to produce the documents," said Cathy Shearon, an All Saints parishioner "off and on" for more than 20 years. "Being passive plays into the culture of oppression."
Federal law prohibits nonprofits, including churches, from campaigning for candidates. At issue is whether an antiwar guest sermon, delivered two days before the 2004 presidential election by the Rev. George F. Regas, constituted campaigning.
Some All Saints defenders have called the IRS probe a case of selective prosecution. But conservative congregations, as well as liberal ones, have been investigated across the country by the agency over the years.
One church in upstate New York lost its tax-exempt status in 1995 after running a full-page ad in USA Today in 1992 saying that it would be "a sin to vote for [Bill] Clinton."
But at least one group familiar with the past probes called the All Saints case unusual in the breadth of the summons' request, which also seeks financial records and overhead costs related to Regas' sermon.
The probe surprised Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a watchdog group that has filed 58 complaints of improper church politicking over the last decade and a half. The grievances were roughly evenly divided between liberal and conservative religious groups.
"What perplexes me about All Saints," said Barry Lynn, a group spokesman, "is that I have never heard of a church being asked to undergo such a sweeping, broad and deep investigation on the basis of a complaint about a single sermon by a guest speaker."
All Saints came under IRS scrutiny shortly after Regas, the church's former rector, delivered a sermon that depicted Jesus in a mock debate with then-presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry. The sermon did not endorse either candidate.
Regas' suggestion that Jesus would have told Bush his preemptive war strategy in Iraq "has led to disaster" prompted a letter from the IRS in June 2005 stating that "a reasonable belief exists that you may not be a tax-exempt church."
On Friday, an IRS agent handed Bacon a pair of summonses, one demanding that the church produce by Sept. 29 all materials with political references created in the 2004 election year, the other directing Bacon to appear before tax investigators Oct. 11.
At the pulpit Sunday, Bacon got straight to the point.
"I want to begin my sermon by once again expressing my gratitude to the Internal Revenue Service," he said, eliciting loud laughter from the congregation. "Those brothers and sisters really know how to shine a spotlight on a struggling church and swell the number of worshipers."
Bacon dedicated about half of his 20-minute sermon to the IRS issue, explaining that defiance could land the church in federal court. He asked parishioners to send him e-mails with their thoughts. He also noted that the summonses and other correspondence related to the case would be posted on the church's website, http://www.allsaints-pas.org .
Bacon told the congregation that, although he recognized that the church could not endorse or oppose a political candidate, neither could it remain silent in the face of "dehumanization, injustice and violence."
"History is shamefully littered with the moral bankruptcy of people who were Christian in name but not behavior," Bacon said, citing indifference by some Christians to slavery and the Holocaust.
"Neutrality and silence in the face of oppression always aids the oppressor," he said. When he was done, Bacon received a minutelong standing ovation.
Parishioner Sarah Letts said she was concerned that — right or wrong — defying the IRS could jeopardize the church's tax-exempt status and hamper its ability to do good.
"What I really like about this church is they don't just talk the talk, they walk the walk," Letts said. "I would hate for the IRS to be able to stifle that."
All Saints was one of several religious organizations that attracted national attention after being targeted by the IRS during the 2004 election cycle. Federal privacy rules, however, make it all but impossible to determine how those cases were resolved.
For example, Americans United for Separation of Church and State asked the IRS to investigate the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark., for endorsing Bush in an unusual July 4, 2004, televised sermon.
Floyd never mentioned Bush by name when he compared the positions of Bush and his Democratic opponent, Kerry. But as he spoke, photographs of the candidates were displayed on a screen.
"Floyd went way beyond the pale," Lynn said. "Kerry's pictures made him look weird, and Bush's were flattering and made him look presidential."
On Sunday, Charlie Foster, a spokesman for Floyd's church, declined to comment.
Lynn's group was expected to launch an effort today to counter what he says is possible illegal campaigning coordinated by the Colorado-based Focus on the Family and its founder, James C. Dobson. Lynn said the conservative group plans various campaign-like activities, such as making political tracts available just outside church services.
IRS guidelines allow churches to publish voter guides as long as they avoid political bias.
"We believe Dobson's playing fast and loose with federal tax laws and that his intentions are to lure churches into what could be an illegal campaign," Lynn said.
In the meantime, All Saints' 3,500 active congregants are struggling to decide how best to proceed.
"It's a very tough call we have to make," said Bob Long, All Saints' senior layman and a retired attorney. "But we're at the point where they really are trampling on our constitutional rights.
"We can't just roll over, but we also don't want to spend all our resources," he added. "But beyond all that, I still can't believe we got stuck in the middle of all this after one sermon on a special occasion by a guest speaker."
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