California Church Faces IRS Investigation Over Anti-Bush Sermon

An Episcopal congregation in Pasa­dena, Calif., has been informed by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) that a sermon given by a guest minister days before the 2004 elections may have crossed the line into unlawful partisan politicking.

All Saints Episcopal Church is under investigation because on Oct. 31, 2004, the Rev. George F. Regas, the church’s former rector, delivered a sermon that sharply criticized President George W. Bush and his policies and insisted that Jesus would not support them.

Although initial media accounts reported that the church was being investigated because Regas gave a sermon opposing the war in Iraq, the reality is more complex.

Regas styled his sermon as an imaginary debate between Jesus, Bush and U.S. Sen. John F. Kerry, Bush’s Demo­cratic opponent. He strongly criticized Bush over the war and for supporting the development of new nuclear weapons but never noted that Kerry also voted to support the invasion of Iraq.

Regas asserted that Jesus would say to Bush, “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.”

After blasting Bush for his support of the war and development of new nuclear weapons, Regas told the congregation, “When you go to the polls on Nov. 2, note all your values. Jesus placed on your heart this question: Who is to be trusted as the world’s chief peacemaker?”

The sermon criticized both Kerry and Bush for failing to talk about assistance for the poor, but singled out Bush’s tax cuts for giving help to the top 1 percent of the wealthiest Americans.

Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said he understands why the sermon caught the attention of the IRS. But Lynn added he is troubled by the possibility that the tax agency is engaging in selective enforcement.

Lynn noted that last year Americans United asked the IRS to look into an even more partisan sermon by a Baptist pastor in Arkansas who preached on the successes of George Bush.

On July 4, 2004, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd of First Baptist Church of Springdale praised Bush for his war on terrorism and his stands against abortion and same-sex marriage, while lambasting Kerry. Floyd even employed the church’s audio-visual system to show large pictures of the candidates in the auditorium while he spoke, using a flattering photo of Bush and a smaller unflattering picture of Kerry.

According to a July 21, 2005, report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the IRS has decided not to pursue action against the church for this obvious campaign intervention.

“This decision gives the public the impression that IRS enforcement is at best arbitrary, or at worst, biased,” Lynn said. “It is imperative, however, for the IRS to maintain the highest standards of impartiality in enforcing federal tax law. Any suggestion of partisan bias in enforcement damages the credibility of the tax agency and is absolutely unacceptable.”

Lynn added that the investigation of All Saints, which the church has announced it will fight, serves as a reminder of federal tax law.

“Religious leaders have every right to speak out on the issues of the day,” Lynn said. “However, Americans do not need – and do not want – their houses of worship to become partisan. Electioneering in our pulpits violates federal tax law and threatens our nation with the kind of bitter religious and political divisiveness that has harmed societies around the world.”