Can’t We All Get Along: Local Governments, Faith Communities, Land Use, & Property Taxes

ImageAn OpEd by Sabir Rahman & Ken Howard, Co-Chairs, Religious Land Use Working Group,  Montgomery County Executive’s Faith Advisory Council

In the last several weeks, a number of articles have appeared in the Washington Post and other venues, reporting or commenting on the conflict between the local government and church leaders in Prince William County:  a controversy which is rapidly growing from a local to a statewide problem, and may serve a cautionary tale about a growing trend in church-state relationships nationwide. Well-meaning local officials, facing financial shortfalls and seeking to continue funding for essential services, are turning to their tax departments to identify new streams of revenue. Tax officials, in turn, are looking for quick and easy ways to provide this income. To them the problem and the solution are simple and obvious:

  • The problem:  growing faith communities are taking properties off the tax roles.
  • The solution:  declare as taxable portions of faith community’s properties not exclusively used for religious purposes. 

Problem solved!  Or is it?

Unfortunately, this is the kind of difficult problem to which H. L. Mencken was referring when he said, “For every complex problem there is a clear and simple answer…clear, simple, and wrong.”

Or in this case, unconstitutional. 

Ironically, many tax department officials sense that there are first amendment issues at stake in this confrontation, which is likely why Prince William County Attorney Angela Lemmon Horan stated that county tax assessors should not be in the business of defining religious use.

We agree wholeheartedly with Horan in this principle she has stated:  that local government officials defining what is and what is not a “religious use” would be a clear violation of the first amendment. However, we believe that her application of the principle – that only religious buildings (and perhaps their parking lots) may be considered evidence of religious use – to be a serious misapplication of the principle.

A key issue in resolving this conflict is “burden of proof.”  Should local faith community’s properties be considered taxable unless proven otherwise (the prevailing local government opinion)?  Or should a faith community’s claims of religious use of their property be upheld unless local government can prove otherwise with a preponderance of evidence (the position of faith communities).

Horan’s statement notwithstanding, we believe the former approach more deeply entangles local governments in the affairs of faith communities than is constitutionally permissible.  A near-universal, fundamental tenet of all religious faiths is that the presence of God – and thus worship and service of God – is not contained by any human-made building (even atheists believe that believers believe this).  It does not take a legal scholar to realize that the legal theory used by Horan and others to justify their “taxable until proven otherwise approach” violates this common sense understanding of religious use.

As the article rightly states, neither side in these disputes believes that for-profit ventures on faith community properties should go untaxed.  Were a faith community to lease a portion of its property to a Starbucks, built and rented apartments, or even, as is often the case, rented out the rectory, it would be only reasonable and just for the faith community to pay property taxes on the portion of land used for profit.  This is the kind common sense, reasonable-person approach is what we believe is needed is needed to resolve these conflicts.

The sad and ironic aspect to this story is that local governments and church in many ways are natural allies. Both seek the common good of the people and the communities they serve.  Both seek to care for creation and seek sustainable use of the environment. We can do so much when we work together. It is a shame local governments allow competition for limited resources to lead them down the path to thinking of faith communities as competitors. Sadder still is that in this kind of case federal courts have generally found in favor of faith communities, IF the faith communities have the resources to survive that long.  And no matter who wins and loses the partnership between local government and faith communities is shattered for generations.

As co-chairs of the Religious Land Use Working Group of the Montgomery County Interfaith Advisory Council, we hope and pray that Montgomery County will not be seduced by that path that has captured Prince William and so many other local governments around the country:  to trade away the good will of their faith community partners for what is, for the county, a merely incremental increase in tax revenue, but which for faith communities represents the individual offerings of their members, given to the glory of God, and perhaps even the difference between continuing existence and throwing in the towel.

We presented this case recently to County Executive Isiah Leggett at an interfaith gathering of 70-plus Montgomery County clergy and received a thoughtful and favorable response. We appreciate his consideration and will continue to work with County officials to ensure that, in its relationship with its faith community partners, Montgomery County will take “the road less traveled,” as Robert Frost called it, and that it will make all the difference.

Faithfully,

Sabir A. Rahman & Kenneth W. Howard

Sabir A. Rahman is Interfaith Coordinator for the Muslim Community Center of Silver Spring, Maryland.  Kenneth W. Howard is Rector of St. Nicholas Episcopal Church in Germantown, Maryland. They serve as co-chairs of the Religious Land Use Working Group of the Montogomery County Executive’s Faith Advisory Council, and as members of the council’s executive committee.

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