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Litigation: Redemption v. Exemption

By Megan Kinneyn | Feb. 2, 2007

Law Office Management

Feb. 2, 2007

Litigation: Redemption v. Exemption

Politics and the pulpit. By Bill Blum

By Bill Blum
      Edited by Martin Lasden
      Have you heard the one about Jesus, John Kerry, and George W. Bush debating the Iraq war? It's not a joke. In fact, it's at the heart of a roiling national debate over the rightful role of religious organizations when it comes to politics.
      Two days before the presidential election in 2004, the Reverend Dr. George F. Regas, rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, delivered a sermon that was about politics as much as religion. In it he portrayed Jesus as castigating both the Republican and Democratic candidates for straying from true Christian principles on the issues of ending war, violence, and poverty. Although Regas stopped short of endorsing either candidate, he said to his congregation: "When you go to the polls on November 2, vote all your values. Jesus places on your heart this question: Who is to be trusted as the world's chief peacemaker?"
      Eight months later, the IRS notified the church that it had opened an investigation into whether Regas's sermon ran afoul of laws prohibiting tax-exempt organizations from endorsing political candidates. When the church refused to admit wrongdoing, the IRS turned up the heat. Last September it issued two administrative summonses seeking detailed information, documents, and testimony regarding All Saints' relationship with Rev. Regas, and all expenditures made in connection with his sermon. The summonses also directed the church's current rector to testify before the tax agency. The church again refused, setting the stage for a legal battle that promises to reverberate through the '08 presidential campaign.
      What happens next is up to the IRS, according to the church's attorney, Marcus Owens, a partner with the Washington, D.C., law firm Caplin & Drysdale. It can trigger a series of proceedings against All Saints by referring the matter to the Justice Department, and if the DOJ thinks it has a case, it could seek to enforce the summonses by filing a suit in federal court. It would then be up to the court to advance the government's case by requiring the church to produce documents or testimony. If, at that point, the church were found to be in contempt of the court order, the DOJ could seek contempt sanctions, which could range from a fine to imprisonment.
      The IRS insists "politics plays absolutely no role in [its] audits." The IRS website indicates that it initiated 87 audits of churches and charities arising from the 2004 election cycle, finding illegal political intervention in 71 cases. The NAACP apparently was among the lucky ones, as the IRS dropped its investigation of the civil rights group last August. But even if the IRS also backs off in its showdown with All Saints, Owens predicts that IRS probes of churches and other nonprofit organizations will accelerate as the nation girds for the 2008 election.

Megan Kinneyn

Daily Journal Staff Writer

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