Michael Joseph Gross


Render unto Caesar?

A church confronts the IRS in a battle between free speech and the separation of church and state. Michael Joseph Gross investigates.

Across the street from City Hall in Pasadena, California, stands All Saints Episcopal Church. Keith Holeman, All Saints' full-time director of communications, finds the juxta-position symbolic. "This is an activist church, facing the seat of government," he said, between services on the third Sunday before November's election. "All Saints is constantly going up against governmental things and trying to speak truth to power."In the pulpit that morning, the Reverend Ed Bacon was preaching a sermon called "A Christianity God Can Embrace," mentioning several points of variance between this concept and Bush administration policies. Later that afternoon, the actor Bradley Whitford of West Wing fame, a member of the congregation, was introducing a lecture by a Smith College Professor who is working to stop genocide in Darfur. Under a white tent on the lawn, Peace & Justice Director Vivien Sansour, a 28-year-old Palestinian who was born in Bethlehem, Israel, was passing out voter guides, bumper stickers promoting California ballot initiatives ("Yes on 89–stop political corruption"), and tending sign-up sheets for ride-sharing to polling places."We are not arranging rides," she explained playfully, pointing to a written disclaimer: "We are only providing the service of connecting interested people with each other. However, we do encourage everyone to go out and vote regardless of party affiliation...." In the winking tone you might use to warn a guest about the slightly nutty rules at Grandma's house, she added, "This is America, and there are laws here."American churches do not pay taxes. In exchange for tax-exempt status, they agree to abstain from certain kinds of political advocacy. Yet in recent years, as more churches have become entangled in political campaigning, reported violations of these regulations have increased-especially the one that bans endorsing or opposing individual candidates. Many churches have learned to skirt the regulations, to observe the letter of these laws while at the same time breaking them in spirit, by quietly sanctioning their breach. One result, for many clergy, is a subtle leaching of integrity. Vivien Sansour, like practically everyone at All Saints, is earnest about her mission, and yet cannot speak of it without assuming an air of mock caution; disingenuousness creeps in.Another result is the growing risk of an audit, or, potentially, revocation of tax-exempt status by the Internal Revenue Service. In the 1990s, the IRS reviewed about 20 allegations of political intervention in churches and charities per year. By 2004, the number of cases had grown dramatically, a surge fueled largely by complaints, including some delivered with cloak and dagger. The MAINstream Coalition in Kansas, a nonpartisan group that promotes separation of church and state, sent spies to monitor and report improper political activity at conservative churches. The Religious Freedom Coalition in Washington, D.C., responded by forming a group called Rat Out a Church, which turned the same tactic on liberal congregations. In the 2006 election cycle, watchdog groups such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed IRS complaints alleging various acts of campaign intervention. Some of these reported offenses were theatrically cagey (a Minnesota pastor declared in church, "We can't publicly endorse as a church ... any candidate. But I can tell you personally that I am going to vote for ..." and then he named a Republican who had earlier told the congregation that God instructed her to run for Congress), others baldly nefarious (three churches in Kansas were recruited for campaign work by the state's top law enforcement officer, Attorney General Phill Kline), and still more almost implausibly stupid (a Texas church donated $1,500 to the GOP).The case that got the biggest headlines, though, was All Saints, where a strident antiwar sermon on the eve of the 2004 election raised an IRS red flag. Eventually the church refused compliance with an investigator's summons, claiming it infringed upon the church's first amendment right to free exercise of religion. In a letter to the IRS, Marc Owens, All Saints' attorney, speculated that the preliminary IRS investigation was timed to "chill the Church's discussions of fundamental religious issues with policy implications before the midterm elections, and in a way that intrudes into core religious practice." All Saints issued a press release, and the showdown appeared on all three network evening news shows and inspired editorials in the New York Times, the Miami Herald, Christian Century, and dozens more. Most coverage merely amplified the analysis of Bacon, an imposing figure who rises at 4:30 each morning to pray before going to the gym. "What's at stake for me, and what I think is at stake for America," he said, "is the freedom of the pulpit in faith communities to speak the truth and to express their core values."A closer look at the story of All Saints' face-off with the government does suggest a growing threat to religious freedom in this country. But it's not the same problem that Ed Bacon has in mind-and even more surprising, it's a menace that many churches, All Saints included, probably could not live without.

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