Los Angeles Times gets religious liberty

AllSaintsIt is rare that you get to watch a great newspaper -- in this case the Los Angeles Times -- wake up and realize it has published two stories in the same issue that are, in fact, directly related. In this case we are dealing with religion stories, so let me happily help GetReligion readers connect the dots. Let's start with story A. This is a news story titled "Antiwar Sermon Brings IRS Warning" by reporters Patricia Ward Biederman and Jason Felch. This is a story that will make your blood boil, if you have even the slightest interest in free speech, the freedom of association and the side of the church-state separation equation in which the state has to keep its hands off the church. Here's the heart of the story:

Rector J. Edwin Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena told many congregants during morning services Sunday that a guest sermon by the church's former rector, the Rev. George F. Regas, on Oct. 31, 2004, had prompted a letter from the IRS.

In his sermon, Regas, who from the pulpit opposed both the Vietnam War and 1991's Gulf War, imagined Jesus participating in a political debate with then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas said that "good people of profound faith" could vote for either man, and did not tell parishioners whom to support. But he criticized the war in Iraq, saying that Jesus would have told Bush, "Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine."

The story also included this fact:

On a day when churches throughout California took stands on both sides of Proposition 73, which would bar abortions for minors unless parents are notified, some at All Saints feared the politically active church had been singled out.

That's interesting, because the same edition of the newspaper included story B by reporter Jenifer Warren, with the headline "Abortion Proposition Finds Its Forum in the Churches." This concerned Proposition 73, a ballot initiative which would require doctors to alert parents of minors seeking abortions. Action on this proposition had been surprisingly quiet, this story informs readers:

But as the weeks before election day dwindled, millions of voters began hearing about the initiative in a place not routinely associated with California politics -- their neighborhood church. So it went on Sunday, when the faithful up and down the state received a dose of propaganda with their prayer books.

At some Catholic parishes around Los Angeles, it came in a glossy "yes on 73" flier slipped into the church bulletin. At Methodist and Lutheran churches in the Bay Area, it was dished up by organizers who set up information tables behind the pews and urged a "no" vote. And at some evangelical Christian churches, including the Rock in Roseville, a suburb of Sacramento, pastors made time for a two-minute DVD featuring teenage actresses promoting support for the measure.

Set aside, for a moment, the word "propaganda." What is interesting about story B is that it appears, to me at least, that the Los Angeles Times does not realize the irony of these two stories being in the same paper. For years, liberal groups have challenged the tax-exempt status of conservative churches that get involved in political fights in the public square. The reality, of course, is that churches and other nonprofits have every right to do this -- if they stick to issues, not personalities. It's a hazy line, but one that protects anti-war activists and pro-lifers at the same time (and, of course, many activists are pro-life and pro-peace at the same time).

In other words, the same laws protect the religious left as well as the religious right (as well as the people who are so consistent that they cannot be labeled).

Thus, I was pleased to get my email summary of the Los Angeles Times this morning and discover story C, with the headline "Conservatives Also Irked by IRS Probe of Churches." In it, that duo of Felch and Biederman inform us that -- surprise! -- there are thinking conservatives who are willing to be consistent and defend the free-speech rights of liberals. Imagine that.

... (The) IRS action has triggered an unusual coalition of critics who say they are concerned about the effect on freedom of speech and religion. When Ted Haggard, head of the 30-million-member National Assn. of Evangelicals, heard about the All Saints case Monday, he told his staff to contact the National Council of Churches, a more liberal group.

Haggard said he personally supports the war in Iraq and probably would not agree with much in the Rev. George Regas' 2004 sermon at All Saints, which was cited by the IRS as the basis for its investigation. But Haggard said he wants to work with the council of churches "in doing whatever it takes to get the IRS to stop" such actions.

"It is a violation of the Constitution for the IRS to threaten that church. It may not be a violation of IRS regulations, but IRS regulations have been wrong," said Haggard, who is pastor of the 12,000-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs.

The only problem with this is that this particular coalition is not all that unusual. It has worked on a number of issues, from freedom of religion in the workplace, to environmental issues, to human rights in the Sudan, to sex trafficking and a host of others. Perhaps it is only unusual to see it covered by reporters -- other than the excellent religion-news team -- in the Los Angeles Times. Note to editors: If you have religion-beat professionals, please involve them in important stories as much as possible.

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