Most people probably don’t attend houses of worship just so they can eat at a café, browse at a bookstore or sweat at a gym. But don’t tell that to Pastor Dan Scott, who claims his Tennessee mega-church shouldn’t be paying any property taxes because all of the services the congregation offers are integral to its mission.  

Christ Church Pentecostal of Nashville (CCP) is a non-denominational church with a weekly attendance of at least 2,000, according to Forbes and the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

In 2004, court documents noted, CCP opened a 104,000-square-foot, four-story facility called the Hardwick Family Life Center. This $15 million multipurpose space includes areas for worship and fellowship, classrooms, offices, an indoor playground, the “For His Glory” bookstore/café and a fitness center/gym.

CCP asked that the entire piece of land on which the family center sits, valued at just over $2 million, be exempt from property taxes.

When the Tennessee State Board of Equalization said that the church would not receive a full property tax exemption for the entire center because portions of the space are not used for religious activity, CCP sued with assistance from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and TV preachers.  

In its lawsuit, CCP rejected the state’s claim and went a step further. The mega-church said denying it a full property tax exemption is a violation of the First Amendment because it improperly entangles the church with the state. (How interesting that the ADF, which constantly fights to tear down the church-state wall, now argues that it should be preserved. Sigh.)

CCP also claimed that denying its full tax-exemption request amounted to a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment “because [the state] treats similarly-situated entities differently without a sufficient basis for the differential treatment.”  

And for good measure, CCP claimed it should be protected from taxes by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, since operating a gym and café/bookstore is somehow part of its religious expression.    

Ultimately a state appeals court didn’t buy any of those arguments, noting that “the First Amendment does not relieve religious groups from all the financial burdens of government,” nor is the tax code intended to inhibit religious practice.

“The purpose of the State’s taxation laws clearly are not to interfere with or suppress religious practice,” Judge David R. Farmer wrote. “Neither the tax laws or the statutorily defined exemptions discriminate against any particular religion or prohibit or impede any particular practice. They are neutrally applied without regard for religious doctrine or belief. They do not compel CCP to violate or abandon any particular belief, or prevent CCP from any practice.”

CCP was granted a 50 percent exemption for its fitness center/gym because it is only available for public use by those who pay fees. As for the café/bookstore, it was granted no property tax exemption because it is not used for religious purposes.

The court noted that granting a full property tax exemption to CCP’s facility would lead to all sorts of exemption claims from just about every non-profit, no matter what the use of their property might be.

“CCP’s argument, taken to its logical conclusion, would entitle CCP to operate a wellness center, a nonprofit hospital, an educational institution and other facilities without meeting the statutory requirements applicable to those facilities,” Judge Farmer wrote. “We further observe that, under CCP’s analysis, virtually all property used by any charitable or religious institution would be entitled to an exemption from taxation where the statutes exempt property similarly used by another type of charitable entity. Thus, nonprofit hospitals and community performing arts centers necessarily would be entitled to a property exemption for a wellness center. We disagree.”

What the church and the ADF don’t seem to grasp is that courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have said that government can grant tax exemption to churches as part of a broad class of nonprofits, but there is no constitutional “right” to tax exemption.

When religious institutions start running gyms, bookstores, cafés or anything else that isn’t related to their religious mission, they shouldn’t be surprised when the tax man comes calling.

P.S. Tomorrow is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. We should all take this opportunity to appreciate his important contributions to religious freedom in the United States. To read of some of his greatest hits on the subject of church-state separation, check out this collection compiled by Americans United.