Taking a legal walk in a church's non-religious woods

For decades, I have been covering stories involving clashes between religious organizations and state and county tax officials. The key plot elements in these legal dramas usually include: * The church is a growing nondenominational Christian group. In other words, an independent congregation with little or no access to national church-state lawyers.

* Neighbors are worried about the church's expanding facilities and the impact on traffic.

* Tax officials want more revenue. Duh.

* There is some question about whether some of the land is being used in a way inconsistent with the church's non-profit status (think concerts, athletic events, food festivals, etc.)

At the moment, The Washington Post is covering a pretty typical battle in nearby Prince William County. The top of the story is very straightforward -- then hits the key snag in the case.

Behind New Life Gainesville church in western Prince William County, there’s a gravel path that leads to a thick grove of tall pines and rippling streams.

As far as New Life leaders are concerned, that land is part of their church and should enjoy the same tax-exempt status as the building that holds the arched-ceiling chapel. But county officials have a different view: They say the woods aren’t used for religious purposes and should be taxed. When the county sent a $1,000 property tax bill, church leaders were not happy.

“Giving glory to God ... is not taxable,” said Pastor Mike Hilson, who recently joined New Life Gainesville, formerly Fireside Wesleyan Church.

Prince William officials say that taxing some land owned by religious institutions is nothing new and that they are simply following state law, which mandates that only land that is “exclusively” for religious use is tax-exempt.

That's interesting. So the issue isn't that the church is using the land in any way that violates its non-profit status. The growing congregation is not, at this point, using the land at all. So if the church held regular prayer walks through the grove it would suddenly become religious?

Late in the story, the Post team notes another relevant wrinkle in this case:

Both sides in the Prince William debate agree that for-profit ventures on church land -- such as a cafe or rental housing -- should be taxed. But leaders at New Life Gainesville say the woods behind their church do not bring in any revenue. And because the land is in a protected rural area, the church cannot divide off the taxed land and sell it.

“The idea we’re going to throw a Starbucks back here is kind of ridiculous,” Hilson said.

County officials say they are simply following existing laws at the local level. Meanwhile, Virginia leaders are concerned about clarity in the state's laws.

The Post also quotes a local-level expert, who rather predictably notes the following:

For many years, religious institutions and other nonprofit organizations were given the benefit of the doubt when it came to real-estate tax exemptions, said George Washington University law professor Robert Tuttle. More recently, he said, localities around the country have begun scrutinizing tax rolls more closely.

“Revenue has gotten tighter, and churches have gotten bigger,” Tuttle said. “You can understand why the assessors want to at least take a closer look.”

All in all, this is a pretty even-handed look at a local conflict. So what's missing?

What's missing is the national angle of the story, its, well, Constitutional or religious liberty angle. Like I said, this is not the first clash between a growing religious group and local tax officials. There are plenty of existing court cases on these matters.

So why not call the national level experts, on both the cultural left and the right? Why not place a call to the church-state think tanks -- several are conveniently located in Washington, D.C. -- that have been dealing with these issues for decades?

It would be very interesting, for example, if the Baptist Joint Committee's pros (on the left side of the Baptist spectrum) disagreed with those at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (on the right side of the Baptist spectrum). It would be even more interesting, and newsworthy, if the experts in these two institutions AGREED on what is happening in this conflict.

In this case, I think there is a good chance that they would agree and it really doesn't matter if this institution is a mosque, a Wiccan prayer grove, an Orthodox Jewish sanctuary or a growing evangelical megachurch.

Why not report and write the national angle?

My hunch? It's pretty clear that the congregation is not using the land in a manner that is inconsistent with its religious ministries or that creates a profit. It cannot divide and sell the land. Maybe the clergy should paint crosses on all the trees?

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