Monday, September 18, 2006

All Saints Pasadena v. the IRS

I have watched the development of the issues surrounding All Saints Pasadena and the Internal Revenue Service with interest. My wife and I were married there in 1969. I followed the activities of the rector emeritus with great interest and concern. His approach to religious discussion was in my opinion detrimental to the denomination that I grew up in. But I also am inherently suspicious of any governmental organization snooping into a religious organization. The law seems to be pretty clear - although not entirely and therein lies the rub. Churches cannot be used to promote political beliefs and retain their exempt status. In the sermon below, Regas set up a situation where Jesus "debated" the two leading candidates for the presidency in an election that would take place just two days hence. The sermon purports to have Jesus dialogue with both candidates on three important issues. But a careful reading supports a view much more closely aligned with Kerry than Bush. He (Regas) assumes that Jesus would support not responding to the threat of terrorism. He also assumes that Jesus would support expansions of governmental power and programs, even though there is substantial evidence that they have not achieved positive results and have also often reduced individual initiative. In a strange sense I suspect that Regas would reject faith based initiatives proposed by the Administration but would accept considerably more governmental influence on things like poverty programs. I find that incongruous.

In my opinion, Rev. Regas knew what he was doing. He clearly states a preference in the speech for one candidate over another. But I am still not sure whether this, in the eyes of the law, constitutes political activity. Regas has some absurd beliefs. He ignores a good part of the Gospels and their concern about governmental power. He argues that his brand of Christianity is superior to the brand professed by conservative Christians. But a good deal of his Christianity is based on the notion that functions of charity are better done by government than by religious congregations. The Episcopal faith has always been a denomination of wide tolerance of views. Regas' branch of it has moved the national church very close to a division that may be profound. The Church has a process for thinking about decisions that the majority in the American church has fundamentally ignored.

But the question is - even with that pronounced intolerance for a wider range of beliefs - did Regas overstep his role as a pastor and step into the role of being a political advocate? I abhor a good deal of what Regas has professed. I profoundly disagree with his conclusions in his sermon. But I do not believe that his speech violated the IRS guidelines.

Further, I would support the parish in resisting the IRS request for documents. The IRS has fundamentally asked for every possibly political document that was produced in the church over a fairly extended period of time. The best way to sort this out is to bring this into the legal system immediately, which is what the church seems to be trying to do.

Religious institutions need a wide range of latitude in exploring issues of faith. In a country where 40+% of our GDP goes to government, a religious figure cannot avoid talking about political matters. But that does not breach the bounds of appropriate behavior.

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