Yep, that was George Regas in that photo — the man in the purple ecclesiastical robe and handcuffs. The rector emeritus of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena chose to get busted this month outside the downtown federal building protesting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few days earlier, scores of mostly conservative ministers across the country had deliberately defied the IRS ban on candidate endorsements by tax-exempt churches. Regas had tripped that wire inadvertently seven years ago, with a sermon that caught the IRS' ear and could have cost All Saints its tax exemption. He's retired from the pulpit, but time has not staled nor circumstance withered Regas' appetite for engagement.
Some pastors are purposely defying the IRS law, evidently to generate a court challenge. You did it accidentally, on the eve of the 2004 election, with your sermon, "If Jesus Debated Sen. Kerry and President Bush."
So was it a searing indictment of the war?
It was a blazing indictment of how the war was being executed by the president, but it also had things to say about Kerry. Eventually [the IRS] said the church would retain its tax-exempt status [even though it] judged the sermon a violation of the law.
Has a church ever lost its tax exemption?
One [in Binghamton, N.Y.] that put an ad in some papers saying [Bill] Clinton supports abortion and calling on everyone who calls themselves Christian to defeat Clinton. [The church also cited Clinton's positions on homosexuality and condom distribution, and invited tax-exempt donations for the ad.]
Free speech is a right, but a tax exemption is a privilege. Where do you come down?
I'm totally against religious communities endorsing political candidates. That leads to the politicization of religion, and that is not healthy for the country. So I've always said we cannot endorse political candidates. It's foolish to think God's in the pocket of [any] party.
It is unhealthy and unwise for religious communities to endorse political candidates, but it is legitimate to make judgments of political activities. I've tried to live with that tension all my years. I was a huge critic of Clinton's [reduction] of welfare. I'm a huge critic of Obama and the war. I have really abided by trying to take a moral position on important issues that affect Americans, affect the world.
The law says you can support [issues]; you can enter into that arena. You are allowed to support abortion or condemn abortion, [but] you're not allowed to say, "I am for John Doe because he supports my position on abortion.''
Would your clerical colleagues like the line to be clearer, or do they prefer some fuzziness?
The colleagues I work with would want that clear distinction. The people more in the religious-right camp see more legitimacy of a clearer tie of one's faith to one's support of a candi-date.
Is that dangerous?
It's dangerous when we bring religion into supporting candidates rather than into the analysis of certain political positions.
Churches seemed to be doing fine before this tax-exemption law in 1954.
Down deep, I really question the church having a tax exemption. And yet the charitable world is [now] built on the assumption that money will be received because of that exemption. To talk about doing away with it is a radical, radical posture. The exemption law is there because religious institutions are an enrichment to the community.
Isn't the exemption an advantage?
We spent a lot of money at All Saints fighting [the attempt to revoke the exemption] because it was a huge advantage for the welfare of the church. It wouldn't be honest to say it made no difference — financially, it did. But also philosophically it made a difference to say [by ending the exemption] that religious communities no longer are seen as enrichments.
Patt Morrison Asks: George Regas, keeping faith
His church, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, came under IRS scrutiny seven years ago after he delivered a sermon on the Iraq war.
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