"If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush"

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A California Episcopal church threatened with the loss of its tax-exempt status over a two-year-old sermon is fighting the IRS on the matter. Officials at All Saint's Church (why always with the saints? don't sinners deserve a place to go too?) in Pasadena are refusing to turn over documents, etc. Legal hijinks ensue.

The fooferaw stems from a pre-2004 presidential election sermon titled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush." My initial reaction? Jesus would probably win, without even having to resort to water into wine (though you can never serve enough booze). My second reaction? If Jesus returned to an Episcopal church in Pasadena, my nonexistent faith would be shattered even more than it already is; the only thing more disappointing would be if he showed up at a Unitarian clubhouse.

And where in hell would I unload all my "In Case of Rapture, This Car Will Be Unmanned" bumper stickers?

The sermon, delivered by a guest pastor, slammed Bush and the Iraq War, though it apparently did not come out and tell folks to vote for Kerry. In other words, it was just like pretty much every Democratic speech in 2004.

Money quote (so to speak) from the IRS:

"We recognize the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and religion," Lemons said. "But there is no constitutional right to be exempt from federal taxation."

Money quote from Muslim leader who actually has nothing to do with the story:

"We smell intimidation, it smells rotten, and we should not allow any aspect of intimidation to be directed to any member of our great country," said Maher Hathout, senior adviser of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

Money quote from AP story on why this is a non-story for the most part (though it is disturbing whenever the IRS hassles anyone, even if it's true that tax-exempt status of churches, schools, and nonprofits is dubious at best):

According to the IRS, the only church ever to be stripped of its tax-exempt status for partisan politicking was a church near Binghamton, N.Y., that ran full-page newspaper ads against President Clinton during the 1992 election season.

Whole bit here.

NEXT: Their Aim Is True

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  1. Many people are confusing cause and effect here. The very reason that the IRS is “suddenly” interested in churches and clerics breaching their tax-exempt covenant is precisely because there was so much, and such flagrant, abuse in 2004.

    The fact that one “liberal” church is also being investigated among an increasing number of “conservative” evangelical churches is merely the exception that proves the rule. It is not indicative of any Bush-inspired witchhunt.

  2. I agree that Jesus would win the debate, but Bush still wins the election.

  3. Who the hell cares what the churches say? If they start running campaign ads or something like that, then fine, maybe their tax exemption should be questioned. But on the basis of something said in a sermon? How is this not viewpoint discrimination? Is the IRS also going after the ministers who said things supporting the war?

    I couldn’t despise the IRS much more. Can we go to a flat tax now and reduce the IRS to one P/T clerk and one computer? Thank you very much.

  4. Just eliminate chruches expemptions and treat them like any other business (except other businesses don’t peddle in scare tactics and high-minded morality). then we won’t have this problem.

  5. What’s disturbing is that the tax exemption for religious institutions largely exists to prevent government from using taxation to harass religions or, like here, individual churches that it doesn’t like. So much for that.

  6. American religion has always been so bound up in politics that I can’t see how one could effectively draw a line around speech that is or is not political. If religion is relevant to people’s lives (and if politics is, as well), doesn’t it have to be political on some level? Surely one’s beliefs about God’s designs for the world and one’s beliefs about how a nation ought to be run would have to intersect? If you think God created people to be free, and you say so in church, doesn’t that imply that the congregation should vote libertarian?*

    It seems to me that if the primary purpose of the organization is not political (and we’re going to have this class of tax-exempt organizations), then it should be tax-exempt. Make some very basic rules, like “no paid campaign ads, no donations to political parties,” and don’t split hairs about advocacy from the pulpit.

    *Abortion would have been the more obvious example, but I hate to derail the thread…

  7. Actually, we should clip this story and others like it and send the file to those churches agitating for a Christian government.

    And Jesus said, “See! See! I told you to be careful what you pray for.”

  8. They don’t do anything about the black churches whose services seem to become Democratic Party rallies around election time, either.

  9. Critizing situations that violate the Ten Commandments is what Jews and Christians should do.

    “”If religion is relevant to people’s lives (and if politics is, as well), doesn’t it have to be political on some level? “”

    I understand where you’re going with this, but not necessarily true. You can stick to the context of God’s laws and stay away from man’s laws and the people that make them. Though the two laws intersect there is a difference of context. Staying in that context should keep one on the right side of the political/religious line.

  10. Churches are not required to be apolitical in their activities. They’re required to be nonpartisan.

    It’s the difference between “vote for people who support these values” and “vote for Bush.”

    The Church in Pasadena seems well on the safe side of that line, and it’s pretty obvious that they’re just being dragged in to make the IRS look like straight shooters as they try to address what is an overwhelmingly Republican problem.

  11. If Jesus returned to an Episcopal church in Pasadena, my nonexistent faith would be shattered even more than it already is; the only thing more disappointing would be if he showed up at a Unitarian clubhouse.

    Then your nonexistent faith would also be shattered to know that he spent a lot of his “first coming” with prostitutes and (ironically in this case) tax collectors. The healthy have no need of a physician, Nick.

  12. I agree that Jesus would win the debate, but Bush still wins the election.

    Damn straight. Can you say “First-Century Jews for Truth”? Plus all those flip-flops: “Whoever is not with me is against me”, and then “Whoever is not against us is for us”. We need a man with integrity who sticks to his beliefs in the White House, not some egghead Jew-boy.

  13. Just eliminate chruches expemptions and treat them like any other business (except other businesses don’t peddle in scare tactics and high-minded morality).

    Don’t you mean “treat them like any other non-profit organization”?

  14. the only thing more disappointing would be if he showed up at a Unitarian clubhouse

    What? We’d have him in for coffee hour then pressure him to join a committee and maybe teach an adult education seminar.

  15. The real scandal is that Jesus can’t run for President because He’s not a natural-born citizen. Besides, He’d have to be resident for fourteen years. On the other hand, He’d probably solve the AIDS epidemic really quick.

  16. Seamus, if they were nonprofit, truly, they wouldn’t have had billions in reserve to pay off molestation victims (and that’s not just Catholics, folks).

  17. I am no deep thinker on this issue, but aren’t “non-profits” exempt from taxes because the contributions they collect come from tax-payers who have ALREADY payed taxes?

    In my state there is no sales tax, but a very steep income tax. If, after paying the state income tax, I cruised down to WalMart and bought a ton of stuff for my family, I would pay no additional tax for my purchases. IF there was a tax on non-profit institutions, I would pay ADDITIONAL taxes if I tossed something in the collection plate, and cut a check for the Heart Assn. How does THAT make sense?

  18. President Jesus would definitely smite the terrorists real quick.

    I like the parts of bible movies when God gets around to smiting. God’s a real heavy smiter. [At least according to Cecil B Demile.]

  19. I am no deep thinker on this issue, but aren’t “non-profits” exempt from taxes because the contributions they collect come from tax-payers who have ALREADY payed taxes?

    Actually IRS tax exemption means that donors get to deduct the amount of their donations from their federal income tax return. Losing it could result in their income stream drying up.

    And “non-profits” frequently amass substantial amounts of cash but it is supposed to be held to be used to further the institution’s mission rather than distributed to owners as “profits”.

    The matter of churches’ property tax exemption is if I am not mistaken is a separate matter between the church and the local taxing authority (city or whatever). I believe it goes back to a court decision to do with state interference in religion. But AFAIK it is separate from IRS tax exemption which only concerns federal tax matters.

  20. I have… um, some knowledge of this situation, because of a family member who works at All Saints’.

    The IRS is being pretty obnoxious towards AS, and the ‘violation’ they’re chasing is basically nonexistent. The level of documentation and access they’re demanding from AS is… unprecedented, out of proportion to the seriousness of the supposed violation, and clearly intended to harass and intimidate the church.

    (And I can’t speak for the national Episcopalian organization, or the Anglicans, but I can assure you that ASC doesn’t have ‘billions’ in reserve for payouts of any kind. They don’t even have millions. They’re a liberal activist church; they spend all the money they receive on liberal causes.)

  21. the only thing more disappointing would be if he showed up at a Unitarian clubhouse

    OK, so that little slap is digging at me.
    Clubhouse?! We have the coolest church building in the country. And it’s called a TEMPLE.

  22. isildur, maybe the church should do the principled thing and cease taking advantage of its special little carved-out loophole. Then it could say whatever it wanted.

  23. highnumber

    I’ve always considered FLW over-rated. I see no reason to change my opinion.

  24. Aresen,

    Have you been to Unity Temple?
    It is a very neat space, inside and out. The acoustics in the rather box-shaped sanctuary are deceptively excellent. If you are in the area, I recommend checking out an evening concert there. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the warmth of the building. Or stop by on a Sunday morning for a service. We could use a few more libertarians in an admittedly liberal congregation.
    (Sorry to proselytize. Not typical for UUs.)

  25. highnumber

    I have to admit I was relying on the picture shown in the link you provided, which I assumed was a flattering shot. What I saw did not impress me.

    Not being a fan of church architecture other than High Gothic and Renaissance, I find most of it depressingly bad.

    UU architecture is no exception. My parents were UU and dragged me with increasing reluctance to the Sunday ‘service’ until the end of my high school year. That building was/is an ugly modern monstrosity which vaguely resembled a gigantic Sears clothing box.

    [To be fair, UU architecture is no worse than that of other churches. Only they leave off the cross/menorah/star of david/crescent moon.]

  26. So the federal bureaucrat says “But there is no constitutional right to be exempt from federal taxation.”

    A principle goal of my libertarian activism has been to enact a constitutional right to be exempt from federal taxation, for all Americans and not just churches.

    Information on The Liberty Amendment here:
    http://libertyamendment.org/

  27. The real scandal is that Jesus can’t run for President because He’s not a natural-born citizen.

    Ain’t that delicious? It almost sounds like a Lenny Bruce bit – Jesus can’t get into the country because he doesn’t come up to the standards of a desirable alien set by the likes of “good Christians” like Tom Tancredo and J.D. Hayworth.

    If Jesus returned to an Episcopal church in Pasadena, my nonexistent faith would be shattered even more than it already is…

    Old joke…

    “Your Holiness, we have good news and bad news.”

    “What’s the good news?”

    “The Messiah has returned. He’s on the phone.”

    “What’s the bad news?”

    “He’s calling collect from Salt Lake City…”

  28. Nothing for nothing, but…

    In Case of Rapture, I’ll Finally Have the Damned Road to Myself.

  29. Personally, I find this whole thing inneresting for one main reason:

    Historically, the ‘separation of church and state’ thingy in ye olde constitution was not to protect the state from religious types, but to protect religious types from the state.

    This gets all the “take it outside, God-boy!” types trying to get the mention or notion of god out of schools all worked up. But unfortunately, it’s true.

  30. IRS look like straight shooters as they try to address what is an overwhelmingly Republican problem.

    joe,

    I think it depends where you live. This subject came up locally a few years ago on a different issue. They went after a church here for engaging in political activity (republican) that *may* have crossed the line. It was mentioned that there are a number of black churches here which have openly… openly engaged in overt political activity (democratic). No one ever raised a peep. I think that the point is, we shouldn’t care– either way.

  31. Jesus would have problems not only with citizenship and residency. He was executed prior to reaching the age of thirty-five.

  32. So Issac

    What’s the issue here? The “tax-exempt status” of churches, and non-profits, meaning that THEY don’t pay taxes on their income stream? Or the tax avoided by contributors.

    Certainly, non-profits shouldn’t pay taxes for the stream of contributions they receive, but you might think some extremely flat tax, with no exceptions, would be groovy. Still, isn’t letting private charities do so much of what fairly inefficient beueracracies presume to try now, a type of “contracting out” through tax loop holes?

  33. Andrew

    Non-profit status is conferred by incorporating as a non-profit corporation. Corporate registration is a state matter and has nothing to do with the IRS except with regard to federal taxation. The IRS cannot collect income tax from no-profits since by definition there are no profits to tax. The IRS would only get involved if there appears to be an income steam that cross the line into their definition of profits.

    Now non-profits can and frequently do run afoul of the IRS for not forwarding income and payroll tax witholding but that is a separate matter.

    Being a non-profit corporation and having non-profit status wit the IRS are two separate matters. The former is gotten simply by applying and paying a fee in your own state the latter has to be applied for directly to the IRS and requires meeting some rather arduous conditions. But IRS non profit status exists primarily to make donors contributions tax deductable. So your answer is it’s about the tax avoided by contributors.

    In other words one can be a non-profit corporation but not have non-profit status.

    That being said churches do enjoy a special status because of long standing interpretations of the First Amendment.

    But good luck getting tax-exempt status on religious grounds for your parish of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I don’t know why the feds get to define whether your beliefs are religious or not bt they do.

    Also activist or partisan political organizations can be non-profits but they cannot get IRS tax exempt status.

    For example the ACLU, the NRA and your state Libertarian party are all non profits but you cannot deduct contributions made to any of them.

  34. To be a little clearer:

    In other words one can be a non-profit corporation but not have non-profit status with the IRS.

  35. That being said churches do enjoy a special status because of long standing interpretations of the First Amendment.

    But good luck getting tax-exempt status on religious grounds for your parish of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I don’t know why the feds get to define whether your beliefs are religious or not bt they do.

    I heard somewhere that the test for this kind of thing is whether the applicant’s beliefs are sincere or not. So if you genuinely believe you have been touched by the Noodly Apendage they are supposed to grant you tax exempt status. Of course they can’t read your mind and they might be wrong in their conclusion about whether or not you are sincere.

    Some other points:

    You can’t organize a group around just any set of sincere beliefs and get that religious exemption. The beliefs seem to have to make reference to a divine being(s) and/or supernatural states of affairs.

    If a small group of people apply for tax-exempt status for a new religious organization they will be subject to scrutiny to determine their sincerity but members of established religious institutions are generally not subject to such scrutiny.

  36. “If a small group of people apply for tax-exempt status for a new religious organization they will be subject to scrutiny to determine their sincerity but members of established religious institutions are generally not subject to such scrutiny.”

    For a recent example…

    http://www.cs.cmu.edu/~dst/Cowen/essays/irs.html

  37. “But good luck getting tax-exempt status on religious grounds for your parish of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I don’t know why the feds get to define whether your beliefs are religious or not bt they do.”

    If you go here

    http://www.irs.gov/charities/article/0,,id=96136,00.html

    You will be able to get a list of most organizations recognized by the IRS to which tax-deductible contribution can be made. The list incluldes churches, but isn’t limited to them.

    You will see on the list several branches of the Ethical Cultural Society – a nontheist “church.” You will also see some atheist organizations, like the “atheist community” of (I think) Austin. There’s also a branch of the Church of Satan in (not that I’m trying to promote stereotypes) Manhattan.

    Whether the IRS recognizes these groups as “churches” or as “secular nonprofits,” I don’t know, because it doesn’t say. But if they’re willing to accord them nonprofit status, why wouldn’t they recognize them as churches?

    Also, a church doesn’t have to register with the IRS, so it could be not paying taxes and it need be on this list.

  38. Ain’t that delicious? It almost sounds like a Lenny Bruce bit – Jesus can’t get into the country because he doesn’t come up to the standards of a desirable alien set by the likes of “good Christians” like Tom Tancredo and J.D. Hayworth.

    That’s 9-10-01 thinking. Haven’t you heard? Nineteen Middle Eastern religious fanatics attacked America. We’re at war. We’ve can’t let just anyone into this country. Especially Middle Eastern males. Oh, “profiling”? Wah wah wah.

  39. If there’s a Second Coming, Jose y Maria may make it over the border so they can have their “anchor baby”, whose name is pronounced “Hey, Zeus!” Just don’t mention that Jose is only the stepfather. 🙂

    In Wisconsin there’s a famous non-profit charity that is recognized as such by state government, but is not deemed as doing enough charitable work to satify the IRS’s standards. That would be the Green Bay Packers, the cult of which arguably borders on idolatry.

    Kevin
    (An Atheist In Cheddarland, i.e. a NY Giants fan)

  40. Unless you’re planning on getting some rich people to donate to a big capital (or whatever subs for capital in a non-profit) project for your church or other non-profit, it hardly pays to get 501(c)(3) status. The donations are tax deductible only for people who itemize on schedules A-B, and you’re not going to do that unless you’re making donations in a big way or have huge medical expenses.

    Whether you’re Flying Spaghetti Monster or Roman Catholic, what are you going to use money for? It’s either going into building a bldg. or going out in charity or the expenses of a minister other than yourself. They don’t allow the circular donate-your-income-to-pay-yourself-as-pastor that was a considerable attraction of ULC.

  41. The donations are tax deductible only for people who itemize on schedules A-B

    Which in these days of huge home mortgages is a whole lot of people.

    But you are correct that it takes a lot of paperwork to get 501(c)(3) status. For a lot of institutions it is not worth it.

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