Government Stymied in Prosecuting Vandalism of U.S. Military Machinery

I wrote admiringly of a number of anti-war activists in Ireland who had, in a series of actions, damaged U.S. military equipment at Shannon Airport.

Mary Kelly took an axe to a U.S. Navy military transport, grounding the plane and doing one and a half million dollars in damage. Eoin Dubsky stopped a Hercules transport for a week simply by spray-painting anti-war slogans on it. And a group called “Pitstop Ploughshares” went after a Navy C40 with an axe, knocking it out of action for three months.

I’m delighted to report that their government is having a hell of a time prosecuting them for that.

In the U.S., churches have certain tax privileges. For instance, tithes to churches are treated as tax deductible charitable donations. But in order to qualify for such special treatment, a church has to behave in ways that the government considers appropriate churchlike behavior.

For instance, a legitimate, IRS-approved church can’t make political endorsements.

The borderline between permissible and forbidden speech in churches is guarded by the IRS, which leads to this embarrassing problem of ministers all across the United States, which has well-earned pride in its freedom of religious belief and political speech, worrying about saying something political in their sermons that might be reported to the federal government.

What is a church to do if it considers the acts of politicians to be demanding of comment from the pulpit? They’re not forbidden to speak on such matters, but it can be quite expensive to do so. The church has to ask whether it is willing to give up its tax-exempt status in exchange for being allowed to speak freely about politicians. Quite the dilemma. What’s worse: paying Cæsar, or letting him decide what you can and can’t say?

Many try to bend the rules a bit — to make their endorsements with nods and winks, or while in some forum legally distinct from but more-or-less indistinguishable from the church. For instance, Pat Robertson has been a mover and shaker in both Christian broadcasting and Republican campaigning. He switches from pious, unhinged, tax-exempt minister to unscrupulous, unhinged, right-wing fundraiser so frequently that he sometimes forgets which hat he’s wearing. Occasionally, the IRS catches up to him and forces him to pay a fine and reshuffle his org charts.

Shortly before the presidential elections , the Reverend George Regas of the All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, California delivered a politically liberal and anti-war sermon that he called “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush.” He tried to give all of the appropriate letter-of-the-law disclaimers (“I don’t intend to tell you how to vote” and so forth) but he attacked Bush’s policies explicitly and assumed that Jesus would be debating those other two candidates from the left. Now the IRS is threatening to revoke the tax-exempt status of that church and twenty others for such unallowed campaigning.

TaxProf Blog has compiled some documents and press coverage about this case if you’re curious.