Churches fight state, federal attempts to censor political speak


PASADENA, Calif. — All Saints Church, an Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. that has been the subject of an Internal Revenue Service investigation over possible violations of elections rules, has decided to ignore the agency's demand to turn over documents and tapes.

The IRS is trying to determine if the church, in an Oct. 31, 2004 sermon, violated federal guidelines that prohibit tax-exempt entities from endorsing candidates.

The IRS began looking into the manner after a newspaper published information about the sermon, delivered by The Rev. George Regas, a former rector at the church. Entitled, "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," the sermon was critical of the war on terrorism and Bush's policies, but Regas never endorsed a candidate.

The 3,500-member church—a liberal body that has been active on social issues of the day, including Vietnam—has posted a series of correspondence between the church and the IRS on its Web site, including a transcript of the sermon, which, through a mock debate, discussed war, poverty and abortion.

"Jesus confronts both Senator Kerry and President 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," the Regas' transcript reads. "That an American child is more precious than an Iraqi baby.

"God loathes war. At the time of the trauma of September 11th you did not have to declare war. You could have said to the American people and the world, 'We will respond but not in kind.  We will not seek to avenge the death of innocent Americans by the death of innocent victims elsewhere, lest we become what we abhor.'"


Taking a stand
In a Sept. 21 vote of the vestry, All Saint's church officials decided not to release the document and to instead pursue the matter in court.

"All Saints has nothing to hide from the IRS," Bob Long, the senior warden at All Saints, said in a news release. "We came to this decision because we believe that these summonses intolerably infringe upon our Constitutional rights and the IRS regulations that embody those principles—namely, the First Amendment rights of this church to speak and worship freely—rights that are indispensable to this church and to faith communities throughout our great country. The IRS has drawn inferences that it does not like from the very words of our worship service and has demanded explanations. When faced with this affront to those essential rights, we simply have no choice but to stand firm."

The issue of churches and their role in elections and politics has become a hot button topic in recent years as the IRS has fielded dozens of complaints about churches. According to IRS rules, churches are allowed to discuss and support political issues, but they may not endorse candidates.


Non-compliance
Churches found in non-compliance face serious penalties, including the loss of their tax-exempt status, which could cost a congregation hundreds of thousand of dollars annually depending on the size the church.

Although All Saints is on the liberal end of the religious spectrum, conservative churches have not been exempt from scrutiny. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., and Ronnie Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., both were subject to IRS complaints in 2004 by Americans United for Separation of Church and State for comments they made regarding the presidential race.

That same year, the Mainstream Campaign announced it was launching a project in which volunteers would attend conservative church services and monitor the content for possible IRS violations. And last year, The Human Rights Campaign, which lobbies extensively for homosexual rights, announced it was launching the Religion and Faith Program that encourages more liberal church leaders to speak on such social issues as abortion and homosexuality.


Montana appeal
In another instance, a Montana church is appealing a recent federal court ruling requiring it to register as a political group with the state if it takes a stand on political issues. The church argued that the state election law requiring it to report its activities violates the First Amendment.

In his Sept. 26 decision, Missoula-based U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy wrote that the First Amendment does not prevent the state from exercising its regulatory authority over the political process, "even when the politicking takes place in the 'sanctuary,"' the Associated Press reported.

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund, which is representing Canyon Ferry Road Baptist Church, filed a notice of appeal Oct. 9 in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seeking to overturn Molloy's decision.

"Churches should not be punished for speaking out on important social issues of the day," ADF Legal Counsel Dale Schowengerdt said in a news release. "After all, that's a big part of what churches do. We are appealing the district court's decision in this case because the Constitution should never be construed to require cumbersome reporting requirements in order to exercise First Amendment rights."

The issue surfaced in 2004, when Montana's commissioner of political practices, Gordon Higgins, asserted that because the church supported the state's marriage amendment initiative, the religious body "became an incidental political committee under Montana law, with corresponding reporting obligations." Higgins investigated the matter after receiving a complaint.

The church maintains that complying with the comprehensive reporting requirements, would force it to "jump through state-mandated organization hoops, as would a political committee."

"Leftist special interest groups continue to insist on using campaign finance laws to silence churches and other groups on issues important to our society," Schowengerdt said. "Montana's campaign finance and practice laws put a very heavy price on any speech in support of a ballot issue like the marriage amendment. The laws clearly violate the First Amendment."

Conservative pastors have become increasingly concerned that the tightening of First Amendment speech in churches could eventually curtail their right to speak out against any issues they believe to be contrary to the Bible, including homosexuality.