A church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, has submitted a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court asking that the church, not local governmental officials, be allowed to select the ministers that serve in the church’s various projects.
It is New Life in Christ Church that is fighting with tax officials because they insist on collecting property taxes on a church parsonage – which normally would be tax exempt.
It’s because the ministers living at the home, college ministers who serve students at nearby University of Mary with Bible studies and times of worship, aren’t “ministers” as the city defines.
The city insists they be “ordained” ministers.
The fight is heading to the high court on a petition assembled by First Liberty Institute, Christian Legal Society, and the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLC,.
The request is that the Supreme Court reverse a state court decision denying the parsonage an exemption from property taxes.
The married couple in the parsonage ministers to the nearby students, but the city rejected a request for a tax exemption because it says “the college campus ministers do not qualify as ‘ministers’ as they are not ordained.”
The legal teams said it interprets the Presbyterian Book of Church Order also to claim that they are not qualified ministers.
“Government officials have no right to substitute their theology for that of the church,” said Kelly Shackelford, chief of First Liberty Institute. ““New Life in Christ Church considers its college campus ministers’ actions to be essential functions of the ministry of the church, and the city should abide by that decision. The city’s own interpretation of this church’s doctrine and what is a minister unnecessarily requires the government to delve into issues of faith and doctrine in a way that violates the First Amendment.”
“For over 150 years, the Supreme Court has protected the rights of churches to determine in good faith who serves as their ministers,” explained Allyson Ho, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and veteran Supreme Court advocate. “The New Life Church deserves that same protection.”
The petition charges, “The court should summarily reverse the decision below because it reflects a ‘demonstrably erroneous application of federal law.’ For over 150 years, the court has confirmed that civil authorities may not second-guess religious organizations on ‘questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.'”
It also said, “It is a foundational premise of our constitutional system that religious organizations enjoy ‘power to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.'”
The church argued to the city that the ministers are just that, under the church structure, “because they were hired to teach and spread the faith to college students.”
But it explains, “The city of Fredericksburg agreed that eligibility for the exemption turned on whether the Presbyterian Church in America considered the [ministers] to be ministers, but it denied the exemption because, under its reading of the Book of Church Order, only ordained persons with specific duties are ministers of that church.”
The arguments revolve around the First Amendment.
The brief explains, “The court has long recognized that ‘the Religion Clauses protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters ‘of faith and doctrine’ without government intrusion. This longstanding prohibition on civil authorities resolving religious questions is not limited to the context of internal ecclesiastical
affairs. On the contrary, ‘the First Amendment severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church [civil] disputes,’ as well. While ‘there are neutral principles of law, developed for use in all [civil] disputes, which can be applied without’ running afoul of the Religion Clauses, ‘First Amendment values are plainly jeopardized when church [civil] litigation is made to turn on the resolution by civil courts of controversies over religious doctrine and practice.”
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