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By Peter J. Reilly, Contributor
April 14, 2013 Forbes - I recently wrote about Christ Church Pentecostal of Nashville’s litigation with the Tennessee Board of Equalization. The issue was whether a portion of the church facility was subject to local property tax. The Court ruled that, for the periods in question 7% of the facility was not exempt. That would be the portions used as a bookstore/cafe and a fitness center.
Erik Stanley of the Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented the nondenominational megachurch, told me that they are planning to appeal. The argument is that, in Tennessee, universities can run bookstores without affecting their property tax exemption and “family wellness centers” can run fitness clubs (As a matter of fact, the church has turned operation of the fitness center over to the YMCA), so churches should be able to also run both of them. For whatever it is worth, neither operation was a money maker.
A lot of people tend to think that problems like this can just be wiped away either by governement taking a totally hands off attitude towards anything having to do with churches or by simply treating them exactly the same as any other institution. I am more in agreement with Professor Edward Zelinsky of Yeshiva University who took a look at the case at my request:
Exempting religious institutions from taxation inevitably creates tensions at the borderlines of exemption, as courts and tax collectors must decide what is and is not religious. But taxing religious institutions also inevitably entangles as the relationship between tax collectors and the taxed intertwines them as well.
Willingness To Render Unto Caesar
It was nice to see that Christ Church is being reasonable about this whole problem and not putting it in stark terms of a Godless state persecuting God’s people. Dan Scott, the senior pastor, wrote to me:
Given all of this, we have been treated respectfully by our government. And, we have made it clear that we are not anarchists or hostile to government. once this is settled, we will pay the tax. We want to be a good corporate citizen. What we are trying to do is to get the government to define that line so one knows before, rather than after building a building how to plan and operate ministry in a pluralistic and post-Christian environment.
In connection with the case, Pastor Scott wrote:
Both as loyal citizens and as followers of Christ, we acknowledge our government’s legitimate authority to impose tax. We also affirm our civil and spiritual obligation to pay such taxes the government assigns. The principal of taxation itself is certainly not a point of contention between us and the state.
Perhaps Pastor Scott would make a better pen pal for federal inmate Kent Hovind than I or my number one commenter Bob Baty. Kent Hovind, a/k/a Dr. Dino, believed his creation science ministry should have been exempt from payroll taxes and local zoning, because it was a ministry.
But Why Are They Picking On Christ Church ?
Christ Church is a megachurch, but hardly a megamegachurch. The trend of having them be seven day a week multi-purpose facilities has led to companies specializing in church design. Pastor Scott speculates that the case may be an attempt to establish a broader principle:
We believe that we have acted well within that line in that many churches here and across the country are much more aggressive in the way they interpret legitimate tax exemptions. We further suspect that because we work increasingly with working class, minorities and poor people, and because we are independent rather than belong to a large denomination, our church was chosen to create a precedent before moving on to more difficult targets for tax collection.
The Third Space
What I find most fascinating is the reasoning behind the extra facilities. Pastor Scott sent me a copy of the paper that he wrote that was included in their pleadings. It is titled “The Fruit of Faith: On the Religious Use of Third Space and the Question of Taxation”.
Sociologists write about the need of modern urban populations for a so-called “third space.” By “third space,” they mean the sort of social environment in which an individual experiences either a connection with others or solitude within a safe social gathering. Using this parlance, “first space” is one’s home, which has become for many a place of solitude. “Second space” is one’s job site, where he or she experiences connection with others for the purpose of accomplishing a specific task. “Third space” is where one expresses his or her being as a part of meaningful community. Such space has become a huge need for many urban dwellers for whom family and community are now distant abstractions.
Pastor Scott also sees a need for a “fourth space”, the sanctuary, where worship is focused. So why can’t the church stick with that and leave the thirds space to bridge clubs and the like ?
Crosses and placards, paintings and sacred writings, devotionals and seasonal articles related to our faith have been created and distributed in millions of church buildings or adjacent structures since the earliest days of our faith. The modern church bookstore is thus a contemporary manifestation an ancient Christian practice.
The reason for the practice is simple: Christianity is a way of life. It is also a community. It is not merely a gathering for a worship experience. Of course, our community of faith coexists with a larger culture – in our case, the American culture. As a result, our adherents constantly look for ways of blending their contributions and responsibilities to our larger culture with the loyalty they maintain toward their specific community of faith. Although the core of our community life is indeed the worship experience, the values and teachings presented in our worship service flow into our social settings; products and services that deepen the community and maintain its identity.
To become more specific to our situation: our physical fitness facility, bookstore and coffee shop, exist to meet a primal spiritual need: human connection with our fellow believers in the midst of an increasingly impersonal urban space. This is particularly crucial for the low income and immigrant populations to which we minister in great numbers. In safe community with their fellow Christians, immigrants learn English, acquire the cultural knowledge necessary to adapt to American life, and accept the growing responsibilities of church membership. The American-born poor also experience these facilities as safe places to escape the pull of gangs and drugs on their youth and to make meaningful connections with fellow Christians who are more knowledgeable and connected to the economic mainstream.
More To Come
I have made a habit of referring religious questions to my blogging buddy Reverend William Thornton. He can be a tad skeptical about megachurches particularly when it comes to the mega housing allowances of some megapastors. In a piece on some churches cancelling Sunday services when Christmas falls on a Sunday he noted:
This is a megachurch thing and no one tells a megachurch what to do, sometimes not even Jesus.
He has promised to write something on the case as it touches on issues that have interested him:
The “third place”stuff has been on my radar for a generation or so and I’m waiting for the clever megachurch to get a license and set up an authentic copy of the Cheers bar.
I can see it now “The Church Where Everybody Knows Your Name”. We know what will be on the first page of the hymnal.