Destiny Christian Church, formerly Liberty
A New Hampshire city official has taken the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” one step too far in a battle now raging over the tax status of a church building, determining that cleanliness is godliness, according to a legal team in the midst of the fight.
The dispute concerns Liberty Assembly of God, now called Destiny Christian Church, over its decision to use its building to feed the hungry and help the needy, and the resulting impact on its building.
It appears a city official didn’t like clutter, and concluded the church couldn’t be religious with it there.
It was several years ago that the foundations of the problem were set in place, when Concord, N.H., officials decided that if the church used its building to house the homeless and meet missionaries’ needs, it would no longer be a church because those weren’t “religious” purposes.
A subsequent room-by-room inspection of the facility was conducted by city officials, and their determination was that such activities were not religious, so the legal experts with the Alliance Defense Fund jumped into action. They now have pending a tax appeal for the church’s 2008 taxes as well as a lawsuit over the 2009 taxes.
A ruling in the 2008 case could be coming any day, but it’s uncertain whether that will resolve the complications that arose following comments from Kathryn Temchack, the city’s director of real estate assessments, who said the church must be stripped of its full tax exemption because its rooms were not clean.
According to the Alliance Defense Fund, among Temchack’s statements from her deposition:
- She said although the storage of a desk and a keyboard could serve a religious purpose, the actual storage by the church of such equipment did not qualify “because of all the other junk that’s sitting around it.”
- Responding to a query about whether a religious purpose is impacted by the orderliness of storage, she said, “It could be. I think there would be some kind of order to it if it was being used for a religious purpose, that you would expect to see tables, chairs, religious posters, a cross, an altar, something of that magnitude here that would say that there’s something religious happening. Bibles. I see just a bunch of stuff sitting in a room.”
- Asked about storing a box for a projector used during worship, she said, “I think it’s the condition of this room. If it’s being used for storage, it’s like how would you know? I don’t know how anyone would know where anything was in this room or how you would find anything in this room. It’s the condition of what’s in the room … It’s just a bunch of stuff.”
In a blog on the ADF website, ADF Senior Legal Counsel Joel Oster said the city has it backwards.
“We believe that a church does not cease being a church when it opens its doors to help out the less fortunate,” he wrote. “Rather, by so doing, the church is being faithful to its biblical calling. A New Jersey court recently noted, ‘The concept of sanctuary has been a strong element of religious tradition from Moses to the New Testament. Sheltering the homeless and caring for the poor has consistently been a church function, carried out for centuries by religious persons.’”
The old saying, while attributed by some to the Bible, actually is not contained as such in the Old or New Testaments.
According to the Worldofquotes, John Wesley included in one of his sermons, “Certainly this is a duty, not a sin. ‘Cleanliness is indeed next to godliness.’”
Further back, the Talmud states, “The doctrines of religion are resolved into carefulness; carefulness into vigorousness; vigorousness into guiltlessness; guiltlessness into abstemiousness; abstemiousness into cleanliness; cleanliness into godliness.”
Even the Quran is credited with adopting the idea, with its, “God loveth the clean.”
But the ADF said the trouble started because the church “treats seriously the God-given call to help the poor and disadvantaged…”
“So this church opened its facilities to help those in need with food and a place to stay. On several occasions, this church opened its doors to people who lost their home, were currently homeless, or otherwise unable to find a place to live. This church provided food for those who were hungry. It had a closet where it kept food to give away to those in need. In essence, this church decided that merely talking about doing God’s will was not going to cut it. It put its faith in action and actually used its facilities to carry out God’s command to care for the needy,” the organization confirmed.
“The city also made such illogical conclusions that while using a church room to talk about caring for the homeless would serve a religious purpose, actually caring for the homeless in that room would not serve a religious purpose,” the ADF said.
In its tax appeal for 2008, the ADF argues the church is entitled to the full benefit of tax exemptions for churches.
“A ‘house of public worship’ does not have to prove that every square foot of its building is used for a religious purpose in order to receive a full tax exemption,” the ADF argued. “The assumption is that as long as the church is active and offering worship services, then it is being used for a religious purpose and the entire building is tax exempt.
“[The church] pretends to be nothing but a church. It is not a camping ground. It is not a bookstore. It is simply a church. The state has decided that a house of public worship is totally exempt,” the ADF said.
“The fact that the church makes some of its rooms available to be used by missionaries on furlough, or by the homeless on a temporary basis, does not negate that the building is a house of public worship…” the filing said.
Among Temchack’s other comments were that discussing the Bible’s commands of helping the needy is a legitimate exercise of religion, but “that actually fulfilling the Bible’s commands by offering shelter for the homeless does not serve a religious purpose,” according to the ADF.
The 2008 dispute is pending before the state’s Board of Tax and Land Appeals. The 2009 arguments are pending in New Hampshire Superior Court for Merrimack County, where a complaint was filed over the circumstances.
It alleges violations of the state and federal Constitutions, including the right to the free exercise of religion, due process and equal protection under the law.
It argues, “No compelling, or even rational, government interest exists which could justify the city requiring petitioners to pay this discriminatory tax while other similar organizations are exempt.”