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Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning

All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena risks losing its tax-exempt status because of a former rector's remarks in 2004.

November 07, 2005|Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch | Times Staff Writers

"The question is, is it politically motivated?" he said. "That's the underlying feeling of everyone here. I don't have enough information to make a decision, but there's a suspicion."

Bacon revealed the IRS investigation at both morning services. Until his announcement, the mood of the congregation had been solemn because the services remembered, by name, those associated with the church who had died since last All Saints Day.

Regas' 2004 sermon imagined how Jesus would admonish Bush and Kerry if he debated them. Regas never urged parishioners to vote for one candidate over the other, but he did say that he believes Jesus would oppose the war in Iraq, and that Jesus would be saddened by Bush's positions on the use and testing of nuclear weapons.

In the sermon, Regas said, "President Bush has led us into war with Iraq as a response to terrorism. Yet 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.' "

Later, he had Jesus confront both Kerry and Bush: "I will tell you what I think of your war: The sin at the heart of this war against Iraq is your belief that an American life is of more value than an Iraqi life. That an American child is more precious than an Iraqi baby. God loathes war."

If Jesus debated Bush and Kerry, Regas said, he would say to them, "Why is so little mentioned about the poor?''

In his own voice, Regas said: ''The religious right has drowned out everyone else. Now the faith of Jesus has come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war and pro-American.... I'm not pro-abortion, but pro-choice. There is something vicious and violent about coercing a woman to carry to term an unwanted child."

When you go into the voting booth, Regas told the congregation, "take with you all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker. Take all that Jesus means to you. Then vote your deepest values."

Owens, the tax attorney, said he was surprised that the IRS is pursuing the case despite explicit statements by Regas that he was not trying to influence the congregation's vote.

"I doubt it's politically motivated," Owens said. ""I think it is more a case of senior management at IRS not paying attention to what the rules are."

According to Owens, six years ago the IRS used to send about 20 such letters to churches a year. That number has increased sharply because of the agency's recent delegation of audit authority to agents on the front lines, he said.

He knew of two other churches, both critical of government policies, that had received similar letters, Owens said.

It's unclear how often the IRS raises questions about the tax-exempt status of churches.

While such action is rare, the IRS has at least once revoked the charitable designation of a church.

Shortly before the 1992 presidential election, a church in Binghamton, N.Y., ran advertisements against Bill Clinton's candidacy, and the tax agency ruled that the congregation could not retain its tax-exempt status because it had intervened in an election.

Bacon said he thought the IRS would eventually drop its case against All Saints.

"It is a social action church, but not a politically partisan church," he said.

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