“For the righteous will never be moved; he will be remembered forever. He is not afraid of bad news; his heart is firm, trusting in the LORD. His heart is steady; he will not be afraid, until he looks in triumph on his adversaries.” (Psalm 112:6–8, ESV)
As you may remember, New Life in Christ Church requested the Supreme Court to hear our appeal to overturn a ruling from the City of Fredericksburg. The lawsuit is related to a house we use as the home of our college ministry directors, near to the campus of the University of Mary Washington. First, the city denied our requests for property tax exemption, and we subsequently lost a lawsuit at the city level before the state Supreme Court denied our state-level appeal. The First Liberty Institiute reached out to us and took our case, putting together a magnificent appeal to the US Supreme Court, assembling a large set of amicus briefs (letters written as friends to the court on our behalf), and putting together a top-notch legal team. We have been waiting for an answer since September. You can see the case here. You can also look back at the NLIC weekend email newsletter on 8/6/21 and 9/17/21 for our early communication.
We received the Court's response on Tuesday, and we are disappointed to share that the Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal. The decision of the Fredericksburg Court remains and we will continue to pay property taxes on the house.
In the end, this is not simply about money. The property taxes will not sink the ministry. Yes, we would rather use that tax money for other missions-oriented reasons, but it is a bigger matter than just money. Its part of a larger religious liberty issue. It is said that “the power to tax is the power to destroy.” If the state has the power to tax a church, as it is acting as a church, it has the power to destroy it. Our Constitution was written so that we could have true freedom of religion and be free to live our conscience before the Lord.
The root issue in our case was whether the government has the right to determine who is or is not a minister. We believe that is the function of the church. In the end, the City of Fredericksburg took that right, and set themselves up to decide who is properly described as a "minister." We believe they don’t have that right. Can you imagine governments around the nation broadly applying the same reasoning to all the functions of the church? Can you imagine the state deciding who measures up to the qualifications of a minister or not? If that happens, churches are no longer free of the state, but subject to it. Our nation was established to guarantee the free expression of relgious belief, and it has been established again and again through court precedent.
But not this time, and the Supreme Court, in refusing to hear our appeal, let the City’s decision stand.
We've heard that a very likely reason our request was refused was that the case was too small, too remote, and too unique of a situation for the Court to want to intervene with. Maybe that is so. We would like to think that small cases matter. Our small case mattered to us, right?
There was a bit of interest in granting our appeal though, and that is significant by itself. In order for an appeal to be heard, 4 of the 9 justices need to agree that it should be heard. I've heard only 1% of requests are granted and most requests are rejected without any support. In our case, Justice Neil Gorsuch made a strong statement supporting our request. He wrote, "This case may be a small one, and one can hope that the error here is so obvious it is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon. But I would correct it. Bureaucratic efforts to 'subject' religious beliefs to "verification" have no place in a free country." (Source) We agree with Gorsuch. The error is obvious. This has no place in a free country. We believe this matters. Gorsuch’s dissent remains in the record and we hope it can be of some help to others in the future.
The Court, in dismissing our case, also dismissed the requests of numerous organizations by amicus briefs, including: the Attorney Generals of 15 States; the Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI); the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention; the EFCA; The Family Foundation and a number of other churches and non-profit groups. We had a great law firm represent us (First Liberty) and had top-tier national lawyers making our case. We appreciate their support.
We ultimately believe the government does not have the right to make that decision. It is the right of the church. It is a basic right in a free country. In God's providence, we have been denied our right and the government has taken this right for themselves. I pray that Gorsuch is right that this will not be repeated soon (or ever). I wish that our case could have further solidified this freedom for other churches in the future. Until then, we must rest ourselves, our churches, and the freedoms of our nation into the hand of our good and Almighty God. Sure, we would rather have won the case, but it doesn't change our call and mission.
It is disappointing, but doesn’t destroy us. It reminds us of the need to give thanks for the freedoms we have and realize how quickly, and thoughtlessly, they can be taken away. Please keep praying for the church, for our college ministry, and for our nation.
If you are interested, here are a number of articles about the case: