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Jewish Journal

All Saints’ IRS Fight Gets Jewish Support

by Eric Berkowitz

November 17, 2005 | 7:00 pm

For a church facing an assault from the Internal Revenue Service, the outspoken clergy of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena acted neither fearful nor repentant Sunday.

The IRS is "welcome in our pews," said Rector J. Edwin Bacon to loud applause, but "not welcome in our pulpit."

The IRS has threatened to revoke the church's tax-exempt status for speaking out strongly on political issues. But Bacon showed no signs of backing down. And based on the reaction from the Southern California rabbinate, rhetorical reinforcements are already in place.

The IRS dispute arose out of an anti-war sermon given by the Rev. George Regas on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The IRS interpreted the impassioned homily as an endorsement of John Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush. Tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches and synagogues, are not allowed to endorse candidates.

Bacon told the packed congregation last weekend that the church is "energetically resisting" the attack on its tax-exempt status. If left unchallenged, the IRS action "means that a preacher cannot speak boldly about the core values of his or her faith community without fear of government recrimination."

Bacon added that All Saints has received a "surprising outpouring of solidarity" from a "host of other believers."

Jewish leaders are among those speaking out against the IRS action. They say that their own synagogues, too, could become targets.

"I would have given the sermon that Regas gave with honor," said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He added that he regularly gives sermons that "challenge my congregation" by addressing difficult political issues. If these sermons have reached the attention of the IRS, he doesn't know about it.

Jacobs said he hopes that the controversy will stir rabbis and other religious leaders to take more chances in their sermons and not cower in face of intimidation.

"There is a great risk to our personal souls if truth has to be suppressed and doubt unspoken, "Jacobs said. "When 'united we stand' means everyone must think alike, something is seriously wrong with our democracy. Jeremiah spoke truth to power in the Babylonian times and All Saints is doing it now."

It was two days before the 2004 election that Regas, All Saints' former rector, gave a guest sermon in which he imagined a debate between Jesus and then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas harshly criticized the government's record on poverty, abortion and nuclear arms, but his most pointed remarks concerned the war in Iraq. He said Jesus would have told Bush, "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine [that] has led to disaster."

The Sept. 11 attacks did not justify "the killing of innocent people" in Iraq and elsewhere, he added.

In that sermon, Regas also said he did not endorse either candidate, but he asked the congregation to take "all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker" to the ballot box and "vote your deepest values."

The IRS viewed the sermon as a possible endorsement of Kerry. In June, it sent a letter telling the church that it "may not be tax-exempt as a church" because Regas' remarks raised questions concerning the church's "involvement in ... political campaign intervention."

The federal tax code permits tax-exempt organizations to speak out on political issues but not to endorse candidates. The IRS has recently investigated more than 100 nonprofits, including the NAACP, for possibly promoting candidates, according to published reports.

So far, there's been no public indication that the targets have included synagogues, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. Nevertheless, he and other Jewish leaders have been quick to stand behind All Saints Church.

"I spoke with Rev. Bacon and assured him of our support," Diamond said. He added that he is working with other rabbis and religious leaders to develop a coordinated response across political and denominational boundaries. "Tomorrow the IRS may well target a conservative Baptist congregation in the South," he said.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has an especially close tie to All Saints, where he serves as rabbi-in-residence.

The IRS investigation is a "selective application of the law," he said, and a "deliberate act of attempted intimidation" against clergy who criticize the administration. "No one's going to intimidate this church, but some churches and synagogues may be intimidated."

"I don't think we give up free speech because the president has chosen to go to war," Beerman added. "Regas wasn't telling people how to vote. He was critiquing the lies that brought us into the war and the impact of the war on American and Iraqi life. This fundamental belief in the sanctity of every life lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition and is what propels Regas and I to be opposed to war."

The IRS has denied any political motivation to its tax probes.

As it happens, the joint activism of Beerman and Regas reaches all the way back to a raucous anti-Vietnam War rally in Exposition Park in 1973.

"Regas got up to speak in his Episcopal collar and he put his whole body into the speech," Beerman recalled. "Immediately we were drawn to each other and we became engaged together in opposition to the war."

The two have worked together on anti-war and other causes ever since.

For some rabbis, the controversy highlights the duty of Jewish leaders to take risks by speaking out.

"The Jewish tradition teaches that silence is riskier than the wrath of opposition," said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Whittier. "It's from the prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Leviticus says you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother."

Nevertheless, "instead of being leaders, most rabbis have decided not to make waves" since the war started, Beliak said.

The sermons of Rabbi Steven Leder generally deal with "more timeless issues of the human condition and spirit," as opposed to politics. Nevertheless, Leder can see an instance where he would make an exception. He said he would ask his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregation not to vote for someone like David Duke, the open anti-Semite who ran for office in Louisiana.

During the summer, the IRS offered to settle with All Saints "by having us say that we were wrong and would never do it again," Bacon said. The church refused.

The IRS's demand for an admission of wrongdoing "reminds me of something out of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s," USC law professor Ed McCaffrey said.

The church's response was the right one, said Diamond: "The settlement offer is very dangerous because the case is truly about freedom of the pulpit. For members of the clergy to be stifled in expressing deeply held religious and moral views is blasphemous."

"Rather than intimidate rabbis [or anyone else]," he said. "It's made a whole lot of clergy persons mad as hell."

 

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