Friday, October 13, 2006

Opening remarks by Marcus Owens

More from the Ohio church/politics forum.

Marcus Owens: (Regarding Jay Sekulow) Many years ago we found ourselves on opposite sides of a church case. An organization called the Church at Pierce Creek in upstate New York took out a full page advertisement on the eve of the presidential election, announcing that if one voted for Bill Clinton for president, you would go to hell--or words to that effect. And they solicited charitable contributions to pay for that advertisement. This wasn't a religious service, this was a full page advertisement in USA Today. Mr. Sekulow and I kind of squared off at a distance. I was director of the Exempt Organizations Division of the Internal Revenue Service, he was counsel for Church at Pierce Creek. When the dust settled, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said there was no violation of the First Amendment in what the Internal Revenue Service had done. Indeed they noted that there was no factual issue here--there had been campaign intervention. This wasn't a statement of core religious faith, it was simply campaign politics.

Now, the case of All Saints Church has been brought up here--I do represent All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena California. And I can tell you on the Sunday before the presidential election in 2004, George Regas was doing exactly what a pastor, what the head of a congregation should do, and that is to attempt to reconcile religious belief with the events of the day, so that the members of the congregation could understand, could make their own decisions. Could see how they might apply ethical standards, standards of morality, and standards of moral behavior in the world in which we live. George Regas was very upset about the war in Iraq. That church has a tradition of being against killing. It has a social justice ministry that cares for the poor and those that are otherwise unable to care for themselves. He was *not* telling people how to vote, in terms of which candidate to vote for. He was telling people that they needed to check their system of values against the positions and the issues of the day, of their government.

The Internal Revenue Service, in their audit, said that it was the inference of his words, that he dared to criticize the policies of the Bush administration, and therefore that constituted campaign intervention. It was not a full page advertisement instructing people how to vote. It was not an electonic mail message sent on Easter Sunday evening to the congregation, transmitting a political video prepared by one political campaign against the other. This was core religious worship services and the government was taking the position that they had the right to censor, to probe the real meaning behind those words.

And I would argue that the First Amendment, whether it's freedom of religion or freedom of speech, stands between the government and those words. I believe also that it is extraordinarily important for people of faith, for institutions of faith, to try to set out value systems to provide the ethical framework for members of the congregation to make very important judgements. If they don't do that, they're failing in their mission.

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