PASADENA, Calif. (AP) - A liberal church that has been threatened with the loss of its tax-exempt status over an anti-war sermon delivered just days before the 2004 presidential election said Thursday it will fight an IRS order to turn over documents on the matter.
"We're going to put it in their court and in a court of law so that we can get an adjudication to some very fundamental issue here that we see as an intolerable infringement of rights," Bob Long, senior warden of All Saints Church, told The Associated Press.
He said the church's 26-member vestry voted unanimously to resist IRS demands for documents and an interview with the congregation's rector by the end of the month.
The church's action sets up a high-profile confrontation between the church and the IRS, which now must decide whether to ask for a hearing before a judge, who would then decide on the validity of the agency's demands.
IRS spokesman Terry Lemons would not comment specifically on the dispute but noted in a statement that the agency could take a church to court.
"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."
Religious leaders on the right and left have expressed fear that the dispute could make it more difficult for them to speak out on moral issues such as gay marriage and abortion during the midterm election campaign.
At a news conference Thursday, church officials were flanked by about 40 representatives of mosques, synagogues and other churches.
"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.
Under federal tax law, church officials can legally discuss politics, but to retain tax-exempt status, they cannot endorse candidates or parties.
The dispute at the 3,500-member Episcopal church centers on a sermon titled "If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush," delivered by a guest pastor. Though he did not endorse a candidate, he said Jesus would condemn the Iraq war and Bush's doctrine of pre-emptive war.
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.
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