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Church, inc.

"Church, inc." Continued...

Issue: "Goodbye again," June 9, 2007

RLUIPA has proved an important statute in defending the free exercise of religion from undue permit burdens born of anti-religious bias. Prior to its passing, municipalities often gave preferential treatment to large retail stores like Costco or Home Depot over tax-exempt megachurches.

But even pastors who have benefited significantly from RLUIPA protection in court admit that the law has pushed cities to automatically view large churches as pushy neighbors and unstoppable drains on public resources. Picarello said the Becket Fund counsels churches to exhaust every good-faith remedy to land-use disputes before considering a lawsuit. "Litigation is an unpleasant proposition," he said. "A lot of ministers have a combination of scriptural and common-sense concerns about suing."

Nevertheless, as the number of megachurches grows, so too does the number of lawsuits. Vanderstelt hopes that his model can help alleviate some of that strain. Several church planters in California have contacted him intent on replicating the idea, and he has begun publicizing it within the church-planting network to which he belongs.

Picarello generally views such conciliatory measures as preferable to litigation but warns that churches offering voluntary tax payments or operating as businesses could create expectations among local government officials that other churches are unable to fulfill. He contends that the philosophical basis for tax exemption, namely that churches provide valuable social services in lieu of taxes, requires a robust defense against politicians who increasingly doubt its merit. Churches paying taxes, Picarello says, might unwittingly legitimize those doubts.

Some municipalities have already made attempts at rolling back tax exemption, but such efforts have little chance of success, according to Evelyn Brody, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law and author of Property-Tax Exemption for Charities: Mapping the Battlefield. Brody says that although property-tax exemption is not constitutionally protected, it is so entrenched in societal precedent that "towns are going to have a hard time challenging it in the courts."

No matter whether churches remain exempt, Vanderstelt believes the onus lies on them to prove they are not drains on society: "When I think about how we live the gospel in our city, one of the primary things that drives that philosophy is that we should be willing to bear more pain on our shoulders than we create."

He contends that a less centralized approach that avoids massive building projects goes a long way toward accomplishing that noble aim-and carries spiritual benefits, too. "The church is now defined by its existence in a community all week long rather than its gathering in a building once a week," he said. "It finds its greater identity in its mission in the city. The weekly gathering becomes an equipping and a sending versus the end point."

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