November 09, 2005

Politics in the Pulpit: The IRS Cracks Down

The LA Times has the story:
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. A leader of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena announced the IRS warning in Sunday services a week ago.
According to the Times, the reverend who delivered the sermon never told parishioners explicitly who to vote for, although his pointed remarks about unjust wars and inequitable tax cuts really could only be construed as an anti-Bush slap.

The text of the sermon is on the All Saints website (at least until it crashes as a result of actually getting some visitors) here. About the first thing you read here is a statement that "I don't intend to tell you how to vote." And the rest is a pretty clearly disapproving look at the Bush legacy on foreign policy and tax policy.

Two fun questions to discuss here, one practical and one theoretical.
1) Is the All Saints sermon different in any meaningful way from a politically oriented sermon that doesn't happen to be given on the weekend before a Presidential election? In other words, if a right-wing mega-church telecasts Bill Frist bad-mouthing Senate Dems aboute potential filibusters, and no election is impending, is that somehow less bad?
2) What level of political behavior should we allow from churches? If the All Saints speech is impermissible, where exactly does it cross the line?

Today's LA Times has this op-ed from the guy who gave the sermon. The payoff pitch:
Some might argue that religious communities should stay out of politics altogether. But that would render our message of core moral values — the values that Jesus taught us — irrelevant. The fact is, all life is arguably political. For example, Jesus says to us: "Heal the sick." Thus, when we address the desperate health needs in the nation and across the planet, this is at once a moral and a political issue.The rightful role of communities of faith is not to speak and act as though God is in the pocket of the Democratic or Republican parties. Our role is to boldly proclaim the biblical themes of justice for all, peace on Earth, the sacredness of all life and the preciousness and fragility of the environment.
Good stuff.
The most obvious, and easily circumvented, boundary between acceptable and unacceptable political speech in a church would be actual endorsement of or opposition to a particular candidate. This guy took great pains to point out that he wasn't endorsing anyone, and then gave some pretty clear inferences about who he really preferred. So if the boundary is defined by saying the magic words "vote for X", then it's a pretty lame boundary. But if that's not the boundary, it's hard to see how you define one.

The idea that sermons must be free of political content (or political judgment) seems absurd to me-- and pretty hard to police equitably too. I think if you're the IRS, you have to let this go.

Postscript: You don't have to look very far into the past to see an example of the IRS making it pretty clear they want no part of adjudicating this sort of thing. This Washington Post article from November of 2004 chronicles the ultimately successful effort of a Pat Robertson-led group to get IRS approval to pray for their favorite candidate (and whoever might that be?) on the Sunday before the election.

26 Comments:

At 6:44 PM, Blogger R2K said...

Well I like that, even if I am a liberal, I think that government should not have to fund political groups like that (or should not be allowed, if it were to be helpful to the administration).

If I dont want Orgs getting funded after they preach racist ideas, or ideas about abortion in this manner, I will have to accept that they also cant talk about anti war.

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At 10:48 PM, Blogger AP said...

What happens to the right to free speech? I think people should be allowed to speak their minds even in a church arena (even though i must admit there have been lots of preaching that i have not agreed with). Coming from a third world country where war has been going on for 20 some years.....and people often being frightened to talk about such.....i think it is far better for people to air their opinions freely.

 
At 11:21 PM, Blogger Sillie Lizzie said...

Matt G: Where do you liberals find justification to annul the 1st Amendment when it SUITS you? I guess that's part of that "living constitution" revisionist orgy. Basically, make it up as you go along... better watch out, your turn could be next.

Besides, I don't know where liberals got the idea that the IRS or CONGRESS have ANY right to restrict free speech at all? If free speech protects a bullwhip up a homosexual's behind as "art", why stop with a preacher's sermon?

In fact, BOTH political AND religious speech were PROTECTED rights under the 1st amendment as envisioned by the founding fathers, The IRS has no right to govern ANY OF IT.

What I have a problem with is the idea that the government has become such a tax and spend Socialist monster that it is used to fund religious OR secular causes of any kind. There is no constitutional authority for federal charity, secular OR faith based. Do away with that, and leave all the causes to "private funding", and the argument over "speech" is over.

 
At 4:05 AM, Blogger TheReverend said...

Income Taxes are unconstitutional. They are also a voluntary tax which we do not have to pay by interpretation of the law. Our financial state as a nation is under attack by corrupt modern day Benidict Arnolds. The Federal Reserve was established by globalist who want us all dead.

 
At 10:10 AM, Blogger Eva Rosenberg, EA said...

Ironically, Matt, in July 04, the churches were speaking out strongly in favor of President Bush.

I explored the tax implications of churches doing that in a MarketWatch article, Church and Statements.

I was curious to see how this kind of politicking would affect their tax exempt status.

The whole thing is intriguing, isn't it?

Best wishes

Eva

 
At 12:06 PM, Blogger Bob said...

I understand that gov't needs money to fund it's operations. So, some form of taxation is inevitable. But, the purpose of a tax should be to raise funds. Using taxation as a way to reward favorite groups or punish enemies is not a legitimate use of that power.

This is why I support the Fairtax. Under that system, the gov't won't be able to play favorites or threaten to take away your favored status if you don't play by it's rules. www.fairtax.org for more info.

 
At 1:41 PM, Blogger Eri said...

here where I live, churches have been preaching in support of the administration's agenda with regard to the war, abortion, marriage.

while they've been criticized, no one has attempted to take away their tax exempt status.

I think it's probably a freedom of speech amendment--as distasteful as I find the religious right's attitudes.

dammit why do I see that even they have the right to say what they believe in? why can't we agree on anything other than this?

 
At 1:52 PM, Blogger wondermonday said...

This matter isn't really all that difficult. Accrding to most Christian doctrine Bush is a sinner. The reverend is just calling out the facts.

If a reverend can't make judgement on sinful deeds, without loosing tax exempt status, who can?

Thou shall not kill... right? or wrong?

 
At 2:50 PM, Blogger Kelly said...

The IRS has bigger "fish to fry" and should focus its efforts on all those corporations out there who aren't paying their fair share!

On a side note - the "Fair Tax" mentioned above is the biggest gimmick I've heard of lately - let's hope Americans can see through the hype too.

 
At 10:35 PM, Blogger Annette said...

It is absurd that the IRS would attack the tax-exempt status of this church and not attack the status of the multitude of churches who blatantly support the current government. I agree that the IRS has the right under the law to remove tax exempt status from organizations which do not meet the standards. However, these rules must be applied equally to both sides. Only whenboth the right and the left are faced with the same problem will they find a middle ground where everyone can agree where the line is between religious teaching and polical backing.

 
At 3:07 PM, Anonymous Click here to see Indiana Hurricane Pictures said...

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech"

-Bill of Rights, U.S. Constitution

 
At 5:25 PM, Blogger UltimateWriter said...

Yeah man, just let the people pray however they want to. There are a lot more shady businesses the IRS can go after.

 
At 5:53 PM, Blogger Forty_Two said...

The IRS makes money the old fashioned way. They steal it.

 
At 5:34 AM, Blogger Tim said...

We all don't like the IRS but we keep our mouth shout...just don't let it get bad as France...

My Life, My Blog.
http://www.timsblog.co.nr

 
At 3:54 PM, Blogger The Archiver said...

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Cool blog. Visit mine here

Please leave a comment, and if you like my blog, tell me to add a link to your blog on it. Then you can add a link to me, and we will be partners!

 
At 10:59 AM, Blogger Dana said...

I'm almost too scared to comment on a blog that concerns stories about the IRS...

 
At 7:00 PM, Blogger R2K said...

Why does every person think you get free speach at all times? It doesnt work that way. At school, im the armed forces, when funded by the government, when employed by the government, even in a few instances when free citizens on the street, there is a limit to what we can say. And I personally dont see any problem with this.

If the government funds you, or give you tax breaks, and along with this you must not protest against that government, well jeez whats the issue? I am as liberal as they come, but I support the central government on this.

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At 7:48 AM, Blogger tarique said...

The IRS is a money making machine may be through unusual means.

I have certain secret topic to share which me . pls mail me at your convenience.

tariquey2k@rediffmail.com

or SMS me on 009322602295.
bye

 
At 7:48 AM, Blogger tarique said...

The IRS is a money making machine may be through unusual means.

I have certain secret topic to share which me . pls mail me at your convenience.

tariquey2k@rediffmail.com

or SMS me on 009322602295.
bye

 
At 3:38 PM, Blogger R2K said...

Why dont you triple post that? Maybe then the spam will work? :)

Wasup with a new post? You are on the front page man! You have thousands of visitors, we are ready for more Tax related stories.

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Rocketry

 
At 11:50 PM, Blogger Cliff Brown said...

I never disagree with a church who digs into the Bible and teaches the truth. I always disagree with a church that corrupts the Bible to prove a false statement. I think the church you talked about is wrong. Whether I agree or not does not change the first amendment right to be wrong.

I noticed a comment that called the Fair Tax plan a gimmick. Well said by some one who obviously has never read the plan. Go to www.fairtax.org and find out for your self. Better yet follow the links to my site and find the link to fair tax. I am a fair tax district director.

 
At 7:53 AM, Blogger R2K said...

And you couldnt be biased in anyway towards it :)

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R2K
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At 10:08 AM, Blogger Matt G said...

Thanks for all your comments. There are two assertions I'm seeing here that are worth addressing briefly.

One is that there's a First Amendment violation here. No one would ever argue that tax breaks must be given out with no strings attached. When corporations get R&D tax credits, we expect them to change their investment behavior in order to get the credits. When state and federal governments give tax-exempt status to churches and other groups, part of the reason is that they're seen as a different kind of organization, one that ought to be given special status. But when that church ceases to be meaningfully different from any other organization, the special status of the church should be yanked. The idea that taking away a group's tax exempt status for basically violating the terms under which they were granted the tax exemption is a violation of free speech is, I think, just a basic misunderstanding of free speech guarantees.

Second, RE the earlier comment about the so-called "Fair Tax" being a "gimmick," that seems right on the money to me. Its proponents are deliberately vague about even the most important and basic facts: the tax rate and the tax base that would be required under a national sales tax. The 30% rate that's currently being discussed would almost certainly be administratively unworkable given its absurdly broad tax base, and the much higher tax rate that would almost certainly be required in the real world would be an open invitation to tax evasion. For an informed perspective on the national sales tax, check out http://www.brook.edu/views/articles/gale/20040924.htm.
It's no trick to make tax changes seem appealing when you demonize the current state of things and refuse to map out the messy details of your plan, and that's basically what national sales tax proponents have done.

 
At 8:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spoken like a true slave to the state.

We survived over 100 years without income tax.

 
At 5:47 PM, Anonymous goodem said...

I just visited "Fairtax" and it isn't. First of all you must be for an expansion of goverment to support this because every cash register becomes a collection point for the IRS. You won't eliminate the IRS because someone (auditors) need to make sure that the "sales tax" is collected and paid. Form personal experience the sales tax is the hardest to enforce and the easiest to avoid. If you belive that "what you tax is diminished" then you are reducing consumer spending which has driven this economy for the past twent years or more. Also with a national rate of 30% this will double, triple and even quadruple the effective rate that most people now pay. Then you add in the state sales tax rate and you are paying close to 40%, no where near what even the wealthist pay in taxes. How many sales will be squeezed out becase of a near 40% total cost? IF you want to raise taxes that much then I guess the "fairtax" is your cup of tea. Another shortcoming is the eliminatin of the estate tax. I thought we were a meritrocracy not a aristrocracy? n The critics are correct this has to be a joke, or something supported by the AEI.

 
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