March 2022 Church & State Magazine

Supreme Court Declines Va. Church Tax-Exemption Case

  Supreme Court Declines Va. Church Tax-Exemption Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a Virginia case that raises questions of what structures qualify for tax exemptions as church parsonages.

The case began after New Life in Christ Church purchased a house in Fredericksburg to serve as a residence for a couple it had hired as youth ministers. Although Virginia law grants tax exemptions for property owned by churches that are occupied by ministers who serve those churches, city officials said the couple’s house did not qualify.

City officials said the church could have as many ministers as it wanted, but that only one would qualify for the housing tax exemption.

“Virginia law provides a tax exemption for the church minister’s own residence, not every residence a church may own,” John Rife of Taxing Authority Consulting Services, which defended the city, told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

A Virginia court ruled in favor of the city, and the state’s supreme court declined to hear an appeal, which led the church to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court’s refusal to hear the case came without comment from the full court, but Justice Neil M. Gorsuch wrote to explain his belief that the court should have taken up the case. In Gorsuch’s view, city officials were meddling in the church’s internal decisions.

“The First Amendment does not permit bureaucrats or judges to ‘subject’ religious beliefs ‘to verification,’” Gorsuch wrote. (Trustees of the New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg)

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