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Church in Calif. Challenges IRS Inquiry Into Political Activities

By Stephanie Strom
THE NEW YORK TIMES

A church in California that is under investigation by the Internal Revenue Service for possible violations of laws circumscribing political activities by churches has decided to deny the agency’s request for documents.

The decision forces the IRS to either drop the case or ask the Justice Department to take the church, All Saints Church in Pasadena, to court. The agency could also revoke the church’s tax exemption, but legal experts said that was highly unlikely.

The church regards an IRS investigation of an anti-war sermon that was delivered by the church’s former rector on the Sunday before the 2004 election as an attack on freedom of speech and religion.

“We have nothing to hide, but there are principles here we think we need to uphold,” said Robert A. Long, the lay leader, or senior warden, of All Saints.

Long said the 26 members of the church’s vestry, or governing body, had voted unanimously to decline to comply with two formal requests, called administrative summonses, for documents, testimony and other information that it received from the IRS last Friday.

The church requested the summonses, which asked for documents ranging from copies of church policies and e-mails to utility bills and other receipts, as well as an interview with Rev. L. Edwin Bacon Jr., the church’s rector.

Bacon said the church asked for the formal process after receiving the second of two informal IRS requests for information “that was far more intrusive and that we thought were clearly aiming to invade our worship practices, which is clearly illegal.”

The request for formality is also a time-honored way of getting disputes with the IRS into court, according to legal experts. “This looks like the short-cut way for the church to get the issue as to whether this is a valid investigation or not right into the court and allow it to rule on the constitutional issues,” said Kevin J. Hasson, founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “It’s a perfectly respectably legal maneuver, not something like a militia movement refusing to put license plates on their cars.”