A Presbyterian church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday to overturn a Virginia Circuit Court ruling denying property tax relief on housing used by the congregation’s campus ministers.
The complaint, spearheaded by public interest law firm First Liberty, asks the court to decide whether a city violates the First Amendment when it interprets church rules to mean that its ministers are not ordained and, in this case, eligible for the city’s exemption.
The petition asks the justices to apply their June 2021 Fulton v. City of Philadelphia ruling — which mandated equal application of city rules and regulations to nonprofit groups refusing same-sex adoptions — and say Fredericksburg did not apply the property-tax exemption equally.
The City of Fredericksburg denied a 2017 exemption on property used by the New Life in Christ Church to house Josh and Anacari Storms, who are campus ministers engaged in spiritual outreach to the area’s college students.
The couple lives in a home owned by the church, a Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) congregation, where they also host Bible studies for students from the College of Mary Washington, an area school.
According to a petition filed by the church’s attorneys, the city said the Stormses are not ordained clergy under its own interpretation of the PCA’s rules, called the “Book of Church Order.”
The city also argued the couple are not “set apart” as leaders of the local congregation, something it argued the PCA’s rules require.
That’s the city substituting its own interpretation of church rules for the church’s understanding, the lawyers claim.
“The City never challenged the sincerity of the Church’s belief that the ministers are, in fact, ministers,” the appeal stated. “Instead, the City denied the exemption because it read the Book of Church Order to confer that designation only on ordained church officials with specific leadership roles.”
But the City of Fredericksburg doesn’t have the right to interpret church doctrine or rules, the law firm argues.
“Government officials have no right to substitute their theology for that of the church,” Kelly Shackelford, president and chief counsel for First Liberty Institute, said in a statement.
“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,” Mr. Shackelford said. “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.”
But Virginia’s courts have sided with the city, prompting the church‘s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Two other attorneys participating in the appeal agreed.
“For over 150 years, the Supreme Court has protected the rights of churches to determine in good faith who serves as their ministers,” said Allyson Ho, partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “The New Life Church deserves that same protection.”
Kim Colby, director of the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said the Constitution “requires all government officials to respect a religious congregation’s good-faith understanding of who serves as its ministers.”
Kathleen Dooley, Fredericksburg’s city attorney, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.