Trustees of New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, No. 21-164 (S. Ct.) 525 U.S. _____. Order denying certiorari dated January 18, 2022.
Justice Gorsuch dissents from the court’s denial of certiorari of a dispute between local tax authorities and a church claiming tax exemption for a minister’s residence used not only as housing, but also as a gathering place for religious study and management of outreach works.
While acknowledging that state law permits tax exemption of a minister’s residence, the City of Fredericksburg denied the church this exemption. The city reviewed church governing documents and concluded that the church did not understand its own qualifications for “ministry”, and that, therefore, exemption must be denied.
The church rejected the city’s interpretation of the church’s views who might serve as a minister, relying on the church’s views of its governing structures.
A state court in Virginia agreed with the city. After the Virginia Supreme Court denied review, review in the U.S. Supreme Court was sought.
Justice Gorsuch is of the view that the First Amendment precludes the sort of deep dive into church governance that the City of Fredericksburg conducted in this case, finding the City’s claim that it may ‘verify’ church rules antithetical to established law rendering ecclesial considerations, which include church governance, outside the purview of civil authorities, including the courts.
History is clear that the United States was formed with escape from government oppression of religion firmly in mind, Justice Gorsuch opines. Thus, in the absence of fraud of deceit, civil authorities and the courts may not serve as interpreters of church law, but rater, church positions on ‘purely ecclesial’ matters are to be accepted as conclusive.
To the extent that this dispute appears to stand established law on its head, summary reversal would have been preferred, Justice Gorsuch concluded. Even if such an “obvious” error in what may be seen as a small case may be promptly corrected, Justice Gorsuch is of the view that permitting the error to stand is not the best way to proceed because “[b]ureaucratic efforts to “subject” religious beliefs to “verification” have no place in a free country.” Dissent, Slip. op. at 4.