Tuesday, November 8, 2005

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The Internal Revenue Service has warned a prominent liberal church that it could lose its tax-exempt status because of an anti-war sermon that a guest preacher gave on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, according to church officials.

The Rev. George F. Regas did not urge parishioners at All Saints Episcopal Church to support either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry, but he was critical of the Iraq war and Mr. Bush’s tax cuts.

The IRS warned the church in June that its tax-exempt status was in jeopardy because such organizations are prohibited from intervening in political campaigns and elections.

The church’s rector, J. Edwin Bacon, told his congregation about the problem Sunday.

“It’s important for everyone to understand that the IRS concerns are not supported by the facts,” Mr. Bacon said.

He later said he chose Sunday to inform the congregation because he thinks a decision from the IRS is imminent. He called the IRS threat “a direct assault on freedom of speech and freedom of religion.”

An IRS spokesman in Washington declined to comment Monday, saying he could not discuss particular cases.

Some All Saints members said they fear the 3,500-member church is being singled out because of its political views.

All Saints has long been vocal about its positions. Its Web site, www.allsaints-pas.org, mentions yesterday’s special election in California and says three Republican-backed propositions would “alter the very fabric of our lives as a democracy by limiting the right to representation and the right to express a political point of view.”

Mr. Regas, who gave the 2004 sermon, retired 10 years ago as the church’s rector.

Marcus Owens, the church’s tax attorney and a former head of the IRS tax-exempt section, said the agency offered to drop the proceedings if the church admitted wrongdoing. The church declined the offer, he said.

An October 2004 IRS press release said the agency had reviewed information purporting improper political intervention by more than 100 charities, churches and tax-exempt groups that year.

One of those cases involved a Catholic group that asked the IRS to revoke the tax-exempt status of a Miami church, where prominent Democrats helped turned the Sunday church service into what the South Florida Sun-Sentinel called a “political rally.”

The Catholic League said the bishop of Miami’s New Birth Baptist Church, Bishop Victor T. Curry, invited former Democratic presidential candidate the Rev. Al Sharpton and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, to be speakers to the church’s congregation. Both urged the congregation to defeat Mr. Bush in his bid for re-election.

But only once in recent memory has the IRS revoked a church’s tax-exempt status. A church in Binghamton, N.Y., lost its status after running advertisements against Bill Clinton’s candidacy in 1992.

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