Drew Zahn is a WND news editor who cut his journalist teeth as a member of the award-winning staff of Leadership, Christianity Today's professional journal for church leaders. A former pastor, he is the editor of seven books, including Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching, which sparked his ongoing love affair with film and his weekly WND column, "Popcorn and a (world)view."More ↓Less ↑
A city in Maine has decided to enforce thousands of dollars in property taxes on a congregation because, its assessment board ruled, the church doesn’t qualify as a charity.
Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Rockland, Maine, filed suit in the Knox County Superior Court last month over a legal loophole that allows the city to charge taxes on the church’s driveway and parking lot, while exempting other non-profit organizations from the same costs.
“Maine’s tax exemption statutory scheme is fundamentally flawed,” explains the Alliance Defense Fund, a non-profit legal organization that defends religious freedom. “The statute broadly exempts property owned by and used for not-for-profit groups, including charities, hospitals, fraternities, child care centers and veterans groups. The parking lots of these organizations are tax-exempt, no questions asked.
“But the statute treats ‘houses of religious worship’ differently,” the ADF continues. “They are limited to the exemption of their church building, furniture, burial plots and a portion of the parsonage. No other not-for-profit is similarly limited.”
The inequitable treatment could be overlooked, the ADF claims, if the city would recognize the church as a form of charity and applied the broader exemption law. After all, the church serves many charitable functions, including the provision of religious and moral training, counseling, child-development services, volunteers for soup kitchens and homeless shelters and serves as the facility for a local orchestra, Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and weddings, funerals, baptisms and so forth. The church even allows community groups to use the disputed parking lot for free.
But by a vote of 3-2, the Bangor Daily News reports, Rockland’s Board of Assessment Review rejected the church’s tax abatement request for the previous tax year.
The net result, according to calculations by the newspaper, is that Aldersgate United Methodist’s five acres of parking lot and driveway is being taxed $2,229 per year.
“Charities operate for the public benefit, train the hearts and minds of their hearers, relieve suffering, and, in sum, lessen the burden on the government. [Yet] the City insists that Aldersgate does not meet these qualifications,” ADF asserts. “But if this church does not qualify, the City would be hard-pressed to find an organization that does.”
The church’s lawsuit asks the court to declare that the way Rockland is implementing the tax law be found unconstitutional to the extent that it treats churches less favorably than secular organizations, an alleged violation of the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
ADF attorney Joel Oster makes the argument that a church shouldn’t be made to pay because its “charity work” isn’t secular.
“We think that because the city denied this church a charitable tax exemption, they are discriminating unfairly against this church,” Oster told OneNewsNow, “and they’re targeting this church because of its religion.”
“The law should be no respecter of persons, or charities,” ADF concludes. “Aldersgate should enjoy at least the same tax treatment and benefits granted to similar not-for-profit charitable organizations.”
Though Maine’s tax-law loophole may be unique, examples of churches facing cities with creative schemes to tax them are not.
As WND reported, the city of Mission, Kan., attempted to impose a “driveway tax” on the town’s churches based on an estimate of the number of people who would attend each church and use its parking lot in a given week.
Erik Stanley, a senior legal counsel for ADF, said when the case over the $1,000 city fees being charged to churches based on the number of seats in their sanctuaries was brought, that it was no less than punishment for the churches.
He said the “driveway tax” was outrageous and openly speculated whether a city successful in imposing such a cost also would be interested in a “sidewalk tax” based on the number of people who walk to church.
ADF sued on behalf of First Baptist Church of Mission and the Archdiocese of Kansas City. The Baptist church had been billed nearly $1,000 and the Catholic diocese billed some $1,700.
After the City of Mission elected to settle the case, rather than pursue the “driveway tax,” Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt issued a statement, albeit in a non-binding opinion, concluding that the fee actually is an “excise tax” and said state law bars Mission from imposing such a tax.