Patterico's Pontifications

11/8/2005

The Power of the Jump™: Church Risks Tax-Exempt Status for Opposing War . . . and Every Other Bush Policy Under the Sun

Filed under: Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 6:00 am



(Note: “The Power of the Jump”™ is a semi-regular feature of this site, documenting examples of the Los Angeles Times’s use of its back pages to hide information that its editors don’t want you to see.)

This is a story about how tax cuts make baby Jesus cry. But the L.A. Times wants you to believe it’s all about a church being punished for promoting peace and good will among men.

The L.A. Times ran a Page One story yesterday titled Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning. The deck headline read: “All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena risks losing its tax-exempt status because of a former rector’s remarks in 2004.” And the story began by claiming that the only reason the IRS is interested in the church was the anti-war statements of a former rector:

The Internal Revenue Service has warned one of Southern California’s largest and most liberal churches that it is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election.

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church’s former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991’s Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that “good people of profound faith” could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support.

But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told 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.”

Wow. All over an anti-war sermon. Don’t we expect churches to be anti-war? And he didn’t tell people which way to vote.

That’s the impression you get from the front page. But turning to Page A14, it seems that there is a little more to it:

On June 9, the church received a letter from the IRS stating that “a reasonable belief exists that you may not be tax-exempt as a church … ” The federal tax code prohibits tax-exempt organizations, including churches, from intervening in political campaigns and elections.

The letter went on to say that “our concerns are based on a Nov. 1, 2004, newspaper article in the Los Angeles Times and a sermon presented at the All Saints Church discussed in the article.”

The IRS cited The Times story’s description of the sermon as a “searing indictment of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq” and noted that the sermon described “tax cuts as inimical to the values of Jesus.”

So Jesus is against tax cuts, too. The conservatives I know are for tax cuts, and for encouraging greater charitable contributions to the poor. But apparently Jesus doesn’t want the poor helped that way. Jesus is a big-government Christian. Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s — and not a penny less.

Let’s see what else Jesus is against. Well, there’s Bush’s positions on nuclear weapons:

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.

Oh yes — and Jesus is, of course, also against anti-abortion laws:

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.”

True, the rector’s comments about abortion are “in his own voice” — but he’s making these comments in the context of a sermon that repeatedly invokes the authority of Jesus to oppose the policies of Bush. The paper doesn’t give us the full context of the quote about abortion, but it’s almost impossible to imagine that the rector, in describing abortion restrictions as “vicious and violent,” means to suggest that Jesus would support such restrictions. The clear suggestion is that Jesus would be pro-choice, like the rector.

I mean, everyone knows Jesus wouldn’t be “vicious and violent.”

Although the rector didn’t say, I imagine Jesus must also be for the right to choose partial-birth abortion. I guess the rector probably feels that it would be “vicious and violent” to oppose a procedure whereby a doctor partially delivers a baby, stabs it in the skull with a pair of scissors, and sucks out its brains with a suction catheter. I can’t see Jesus being opposed to something like that . . .

As for the war, it turns out that Jesus isn’t just against war — He also sees Bush as a terrorist who does not value the lives of Iraqi children:

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.”

Confronting both Kerry and Bush is, of course, a device. The congregation understands that the comments in the second paragraph of the previous quote are directed at Bush — as is made clear by the pointed comments about Bush in the first paragraph.

Reading the story, it’s impossible to spot a Bush policy that the rector thinks Jesus would favor.

All of these facts appear on page A14. On the front page, we were told that the rector did not ask parishioners to vote for Kerry. No, no, no — of course not! All he said was this:

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.”

Let me sum up what the rector said:

  • Jesus hates war. (This is all we are told on Page One.)
  • Jesus specifically hates the Iraq war. He thinks it is terrorism, and that Bush does not care about Iraqi children the way he cares about Americans.
  • Jesus dislikes tax cuts.
  • Jesus does not like Bush’s nuclear weapons policies.
  • Jesus wants women to be able to abort their children if they want to. (I’m putting two and two together here: after all, Jesus is not “vicious and violent.”)
  • The rector’s conclusion, summarized: I’m not saying to vote for John Kerry. I’m just saying that the Iraq war, tax cuts, abortion restrictions, and nuclear testing make baby Jesus cry. If you want baby Jesus to cry, then by all means vote for whichever candidate supports these anti-Jesus policies. But if you are asking “What Would Jesus Do?” — well, He would pull the lever for the peacemaker. As between Kerry and Bush, I can’t tell you who that is — but I can say this: it sure as Hell ain’t Bush.

Reasonable people can debate whether the IRS should be going after this church — or whether the government should be in the business of granting and denying tax exemptions based on speech so intertwined with the First Amendment.

But let’s not make it seem like it’s all about a church supporting peace over war, L.A. Times editors. There’s a leetle more to it than that. But it’s hidden from most readers’ eyes, thanks to . . . The Power of the Jump™.

P.S. The fable that this is all about antiwar sentiment continues in today’s paper, in this article, which begins:

The IRS threat to revoke the tax-exempt status of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena because of an antiwar sermon there during the 2004 presidential election is part of a larger, controversial federal investigation of political activity at churches and nonprofit groups.

No mention of abortion, tax cuts, or nuclear testing anywhere in this article, which ends with this insight into the views of the rector who gave the sermon:

When he was asked if he had any regrets about his 2004 sermon, he said: “No regrets. I only wish I had preached it with greater intensity.”

You know . . . because that damn Bush won!

37 Responses to “The Power of the Jump™: Church Risks Tax-Exempt Status for Opposing War . . . and Every Other Bush Policy Under the Sun”

  1. Patterico, I think you might have something with your POTJ point. As for the rest, I disagree, and think even reasonable minds have to take a step back and draw the line in a sensible way that lets such sermons take place without government retribution.

    But even the “buried” details on the sermon is not political campaigning. Your argument that it is is a stretch, if you look at the whole playing field. Regas was preaching on moral & religious aspects of these issues.

    Morevoer, the penalty seems to be selectively threatened. What about the churches who gave their congregation lists over to the Bush campaign. There doesn’t need to be an astute Patterico of the left there to infer that such action is political. It is outright political.

    So, will those churches be paying corporate taxes anytime soon?

    biwah (f5ca22)

  2. . . . I disagree, and think even reasonable minds have to take a step back and draw the line in a sensible way that lets such sermons take place without government retribution.

    Huh? What did I say that leads you to believe that I agree with the policy of getting the government in the middle of such matters? If anything, I suggest in the post that I don’t.

    But I don’t make the argument, because that’s not the point of the post. The point is that this sermon went way beyond simple opposition to war, into a thinly disguised campaign commercial for John Kerry.

    You seem to want to have a debate over tax exemptions. I just want any such debate to be held based upon all the facts — not upon some fantasy that the IRS cracks down on churches for promoting peace and goodwill among men.

    Patterico (4e4b70)

  3. Reasonable people can debate whether the IRS should be going after this church — or whether the government should be in the business of granting and denying tax exemptions based on speech so intertwined with the First Amendment.

    I was making a guarded challenge to this hands-off approach to the merits of the issue. I don’t think reasonable minds should disagree, but I’m not calling anyone who thinks otherwise per se unreasonable either.

    I’m just saying that the Iraq war, tax cuts, abortion restrictions, and nuclear testing make baby Jesus cry.

    Your characterizations don’t get by the fact that the sermon takes (by all indications) a heartfelt, religious, moral stance on these issues.

    All your jabs about baby Jesus crying don’t prove that religion was a prop for political campaigning. With these jabs, your point goes beyond simply calling LAT on their characterization of the sermon as “antiwar”.

    It looks like you’re tarring Regas as not coming from a conscientious viewpoint, as though a conscientious viewpoint could not possibly stand on the “wrong” side of these issues.

    biwah (f5ca22)

  4. Not at all. He is coming from a conscientious viewpoint — but it’s a conscientious *political* viewpoint.

    Patterico (4e4b70)

  5. And does labeling it “antiwar”, when the country is at war, somehow conceal the politcal aspects of that viewpoint?

    biwah (f5ca22)

  6. It strikes me that the Daily Dog Trainer supports the ACLU in its efforts to have all vestiges of religion or religious symbols removed from government facilities–e.g. the removal of the Mission Cross from the LA County Seal–this on the theory that Church and State must be kept rigorously separate. If you buy that theory, than there is no place for a minister of any persuasion to intervene in a political contest. I’m certain that the ACLU would champion Reverend Regas right to engage in this political discourse–and keep his church’s tax exempt status–just as hard as they worked to remove the cross from the seal. The Arrogant Condescending Lawyer’s Union is a veritable vessel of hyprocrisy.

    Mike Myers (8440d6)

  7. If you buy that theory, than there is no place for a minister of any persuasion to intervene in a political contest.

    So, by speaking on a topic, you are automatically intervening in the situation where that topic is being played out?

    biwah (f5ca22)

  8. And does labeling it “antiwar”, when the country is at war, somehow conceal the politcal aspects of that viewpoint?

    No. Concealing the numerous other political positions the rector took is.

    Sorry, but I know of no biblical authority to support the contention that Jesus opposed tax cuts. That’s a political issue, not a religious one.

    Patterico (611e41)

  9. There is simply no objective test or standard that can be applied to determine the bright line where religion crosses into politics.

    On a slightly different tangent, have Muslim mosques – whose positions and sermons often make All Saints look like a Republican fundraiser, in contrast – been subjected to the same sorts of IRS review?

    If not, then the IRS standards as applied are themselves subjective and political, the very “sins” they purport to be stamping out, and they are in fact merely playing favorites.

    ras (f9de13)

  10. The government absolutely should be in the business of determining whether the content of an organization’s speech disqualifies it from tax-exempt status — that is, if the government is to grant tax-exempt status at all. That’s not a violation of anyone’s free speech rights; the people expressing their ideas from the subsidized comfort of a tax-exempt organization could also do so while paying taxes like the rest of us. The government could (and arguably should) tax churches or other not for profit organizations just as they do for profit organizations — tax exemptions are an establishment clause issue, not a free exercise issue, so there’s no constitutional entitlement of churches to an exemption; rather, there’s a constitutional limitation on Congress’ power to grant exemptions. And tax exempt organizations should indeed lose tax preferences as they take actions or express ideas that remove them from the non-partisan realm into the realm of the partisan preferences of particular individuals or groups of individuals — because those of us who disagree with their actions or ideas should not be forced to subsidize them.

    If the limitations on activities of tax-exempt organizations can’t be enforced fairly, then the answer isn’t for the government to step back and allow the activities to continue on a tax-exempt basis; rather, the appropriate response is to do away with the exemptions altogether. Do that, and there’s no need for government to be the speech-content police.

    TNugent (6128b4)

  11. Patterico, you mean “give unto Caesar” doesn’t make Jesus a big government, tax and tax and spend liberal?

    TNugent (6128b4)

  12. I know of no biblical authority to support the contention that Jesus opposed tax cuts

    There is a strong biblical argument against tax cuts. Strong as in, the connection is not a great leap.

    Moreover, if tax cuts have any moral dimension, then there is room for a faith-based (that phrase – ugh) conversation on tax cuts. And being about societal priorities, it is hard to imagine that they are “purely political”. Does any social or economic issues exist in a moral vacuum? Isn’t that the point of the anti-ACLUers like Mike Myers (and I’m not disputing his point) – that people must be given latitude to incorporate their moral/religious beliefs into their politics, rather than have the two skewered by some artificial line that the founders never dreamed of? Well, if so, why not a moral stance regarding tax cuts – if the case can be made?

    If you don’t think that case can be made, that’s a potential discussion. But you gave the impression you wanted to steer clear of that.

    As for “concealment” of the other aspects of the sermon, I already agreed, albeit halfheartedly. The peace theme is the dominant theme, and underlies the benevolence to the poor. Obviously abortion sticks out – that’s what your objection is really about, right?

    biwah (f5ca22)

  13. This leads down an ugly road for everyone.

    Would the Catholic Church’s denial of communion, based upon nothing more than a parishoners’s voting behavior, also trigger this loss of tax-exempt status?

    Geek, Esq. (5dd2be)

  14. TNugent:

    rather, the appropriate response is to do away with the exemptions altogether.

    Sure. But I doubt you’d get far with that idea, once you had to apply it to conservative churches too.

    biwah (f5ca22)

  15. TNugent,

    You are correct, but evolution would quickly make extinct the careers of those pols who tried your suggestion, which leaves us back where we started.

    ras (f9de13)

  16. The way the LAT rigged the article was sleazy, but I see no reason for churches to have their tax-exempt status questioned for preachings from the pulpit. Lots of preachers criticized Clinton, too. Having the IRS wade into churches to sniff out partisanship is a bad thing.

    Les Jones (514bb2)

  17. There is a strong biblical argument against tax cuts. Strong as in, the connection is not a great leap.

    There is a strong biblical argument for helping the poor. But show me the biblical authority for the proposition that Jesus felt this goal should be achieved by taxing and spending, as opposed to individualized ministry. (That’s what Republicans favor.)

    Patterico (147054)

  18. This leads down an ugly road for everyone.

    Would the Catholic Church’s denial of communion, based upon nothing more than a parishoners’s voting behavior, also trigger this loss of tax-exempt status?

    If we must discuss the policy, I *tentatively* agree. I agree with TNugent that it’s not a First Amendment issue as things currently stand. I also agree that, as long as we’re going to have such tax exemptions, the rules must be enforced.

    But what if everyone were taxed at a 95% rate? Or a 99% rate? At a certain point it ceases becoming a government benefit, and becomes more of a situation where the government has power over what you say.

    In general, I don’t like it. But I haven’t thoroughly examined the issue and heard the arguments for it, which is part of why I tried to keep the focus on the article.

    Patterico (147054)

  19. This is such a ruthless tactic.

    The abortion issue seems to be a key political religious talking point that makes Christians feel obligated to vote republican. Why aren’t all the anti-abortion churches penalized? Throw out the exemption if, as biwah said so well, “the penalty” is “selectively threatened.”

    Tillman (1cf529)

  20. Biwah, non-enforcement against one violator doesn’t excuse another’s violation. If the restrictions are applied only to liberal churches and not conservative ones, let the liberal churches complain. From my point of view, that’s half the problem solved (not that I would let the conservative churches off the hook — hitting them first would also be half the problem solved, still worthwhile, but not as enjoyable).

    ras, don’t bet against popular support for removing exemptions as part of an overhaul of the tax code that greatly simplifies reporting while making everyone pay the same rate. The whole point of tax reform is to get the government out of the business of creating incentives favoring some uses of money while disfavoring others/favoring some taxpayers while disfavoring others, and instead using taxation solely as a means of raising revenue for the things that government needs to do. Of course, that would mean that churches (not to mention other nonprofits) would then have to make their case for donations without an appeal to the tax advantages, which of course are proportionately greater for those in higher income brackets. Not saying it’s going to happen, but Joe Average (not to mention Joe Average Small Business Owner) might like the idea of paying a bit less for a change while the Heinz-Kerrys of the world pay at a rate comparable to Joe Average.

    TNugent (6128b4)

  21. Oops, I did veer a bit off the article, didn’t I. Sorry ’bout that.

    MSM strikes again (a bit of backsliding for the LATimes, given the hopeful signs we’ve seen recently); Patterico calls ’em on it; situation normal . . .

    TNugent (6128b4)

  22. How are the following not contradictions?

    #1 – Decrying the Separation of C & S wingnuts while also pegging any politically related preaching based on biblical interpretation as inappropriate political campaigning? Sure, the issue here is not 1st A. but tax-exempt status. Does that solve it?

    #2 – Offering to support the removal of all churches (or just all churches that speak on social isues that are the subject of some area of politics – ?) from the tax-exempt rolls, but then claiming that private charitable giving is the real answer to our welfare-loving, tax-and-spend ways? What do you think will happen to private giving when those gifts start getting taxed?

    biwah (f5ca22)

  23. TNugent:

    If the restrictions are applied only to liberal churches and not conservative ones, let the liberal churches complain. From my point of view, that’s half the problem solved (not that I would let the conservative churches off the hook — hitting them first would also be half the problem solved, still worthwhile, but not as enjoyable).

    Hitting only liberal churches is not just half a right (or wrong, depending on your point of view). It is qualitatively different, and a 1st a. violation on multiple levels, none of which require any spin by any pinko special interest groups to be obvious.

    By taxing just the liberals and saying “hey, at least it’s better than letting everyone off”, the government would be punishing a specific viewpoint, and funding a certain religious stance (that this religious subsidy/penalty would break down along denominational lines would be icing onn the cake, but unnecessary).

    I think if the penalty was wielded against conservative churches, you’d be a little quicker to catch the implications of your statement.

    biwah (f5ca22)

  24. biwah, I don’t think this is a First Amendment issue, because the government isn’t restricting speech; it’s only enforcing, perhaps selectively, a proper limitation on a tax exemption, without which the exemption itself would violate the First Amendment. So, even though there’s not a free speech problem it seems that there’s an equal protection problem — but oops, I seem to have misplaced that elusive 5th amendment equal protection clause. Hiding behind a penumbra, no doubt . . .

    TNugent (6128b4)

  25. If the restrictions are applied only to liberal churches and not conservative ones, let the liberal churches complain. From my point of view, that’s half the problem solved (not that I would let the conservative churches off the hook — hitting them first would also be half the problem solved, still worthwhile, but not as enjoyable).

    Blatant violations of the First Amendment don’t bother you?

    Geek, Esq. (5dd2be)

  26. biwah, for the record, I’m against selective enforcement of the conditions of churches’ tax-exempt status, but non-enforcement is not an appropriate response, particularly from the point of view of those, like me, who find as much disagreeable on the further reaches of the evangelical right wing as on the left. The conditions are appropriate and should be enforced without regard to whether the church in question is liberal or conservative.

    TNugent (6128b4)

  27. TNugent, I don’t know if “as-applied” is the right term, but suffice to say: if the IRS adopts a regulation taxing all sales of frisbees, but collects that tax only from those frisbees bearing hippie-esque graphics, it is violating the First Amendment.

    If sidestepping the bill of rights was as easy as passing a law or reg that looks alright on paper, don’t you think they’d be doing it more?

    biwah (f5ca22)

  28. 26 – sure, I understand, and I don’t know what I ate today to make me so dour and combatative.

    Now that that’s clear, re: tax-exempt status, how can you enforce it tightly and neutrally without eliminating it altogether, and without gagging (through coercion) churches on subjects that pretty clearly fall within the purview of religion?

    remember, that tax-exemption is there for a reason, and it motivates people to be charitable, and charity is the alternative to big government…

    biwah (f5ca22)

  29. biwah, as applied works for me. But let’s assume in your example that it was Congress, rather than the IRS, that passed a law taxing frisbees (as it would be, of course), but the IRS failed to follow the law, collecting the tax selectively based on content of the writing on the frisbees. The selective application might violate the first amendment, but a court wouldn’t have to (and therefore shouldn’t) reach a constitutional issue to fashion an appropriate remedy — the remedy of course, would be to direct the IRS to follow the the law as passed by Congress. If the Court enjoined the collection of the tax altogether, it would be stepping all over Congress’ authority — acting well beyond the power of the courts as contemplated by the Constitution. In any event, as I said, I don’t favor selective enforcement; any remarks of mine to the contrary were purely facetious.

    TNugent (6128b4)

  30. Not sure about Jesus, but a ten percent tax rate was horrible for the prophet Samuel to contemplate:

    1 Samuel ch 8

    11 And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. …15 And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. 16 And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. 17 He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. 18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. 19 Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; 20 That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.

    See Dubya (053ad5)

  31. biwah, regulatory safe harbors work pretty well. Not sure if there’s one covering this particular circumstance, but if there is, I would bet that the IRS’ response was prompted by a venture outside the safe harbor. I’m sure others of various political persuasions have as well, and if we’re going to have the exemption, we’ve got to have enforcement.

    TNugent (6128b4)

  32. The selective application might violate the first amendment, but a court wouldn’t have to (and therefore shouldn’t) reach a constitutional issue to fashion an appropriate remedy — the remedy of course, would be to direct the IRS to follow the the law as passed by Congress. If the Court enjoined the collection of the tax altogether, it would be stepping all over Congress’ authority — acting well beyond the power of the courts as contemplated by the Constitution.

    However, that would involve judicial supervision of an executive agency.

    Geek, Esq. (5dd2be)

  33. Blatant violations of the First Amendment don’ bother you?

    I didn’t know the First Amendment said anything about tax exemptions.

    Xrlq (e2795d)

  34. geek, “direct the IRS” was probably a poor choice of words. Declaring discriminatory determinations by the IRS under the Code to be beyond its power might have been better, I suppose, with the court presuming that Congress intended the law to be applied in a manner that would not cause a violation of any Constitutional guarantee. Finding discriminatory enforcement by IRS to be outside of the scope of the law passed by Congress and therefore outside the authority of IRS to act is much less of a stretch than finding a first amendment violation by IRS — as you point out, an executive agency. Particularly where the First Amendment is concerned, the “Congress shall make no law” language poses an inconvenient problem for anyone seeking assert a violation by the generic “The Government.” Or have we been conditioned to regard or disregard the the first five words of the First Amendment, depending on which approach happens to favor the policy result we want?

    TNugent (6128b4)

  35. If Congress authorizes a regulation, or regulator, won’t this fact bring said regulators, or administrators, under the restrictions upon government placed by the First Amendment?

    RJN (c3a4a3)

  36. Go vote, Virginia!

    Today’s dose of NIF – News, Interesting & Funny … Go vote VA, and it’s Kerry-180 Tuesday (+ Open TrackBacks!)

    NIF (59ce3a)

  37. […] Hermit Greg writes about a confrontation between the IRS and a California church which finds its tax-exempt 501 (c)(3) status in jeopardy over a case of pre-election political pulpit punditry. Patterico takes another look at the sermon in quesetion and the LA Times article that spawned Greg’s post. […]

    Fishkite » Blog Archive » taxes, morality, evolution and more (41253b)


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