No Separation of Church and State in Tennessee

For the last several years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has had a “Day on the Hill” at the state capitol.  And, of course, every day during the legislative session, the ACLU of Tennessee has two lobbyists working to ensure that church and state stay separate and don’t get “entangled.”  So why aren’t they hopping mad over what our state court just did to a church in Nashville?

The case involved a church in Nashville, Christ Church.  A few years ago the church decided that changing times called for new ways to engage people and reach out to them.  It was looking for a way that might allow for the development of relationships outside a church service that would allow the gospel to be shared by word and example.

So, in furtherance of its mission and that goal, Christ Church decided to build a bookstore on its campus and make it open to the public.  And it built a recreational facility, created memberships (though no one was turned away because of inability to pay), and opened it to the public.

But Davidson County wanted property taxes from the church for the value of the property containing the bookstore and the recreational facility.  The church was hit with several hundred thousand dollars in taxes.

The church appealed.  The state Court of Appeals upheld the tax, saying:

“We accept [the church’s] assertion that providing [these opportunities] is part of its outreach ministry.  However, we agree with the trial court that [the church’s] operation of a retail bookstore/café and commercial fitness center was not reasonably necessary to accomplish this mission.”  (emphasis added)

How do you like that?  Even though the United States Supreme Court has said that “separation of church and state” means there cannot be an “excessive entanglement” between the church and the state, it appears that for this panel of appellate judges excessive entanglement is a one way street.

In other words, if civil government does anything that appears to support, aid or foster religious sentiments, then the ACLU and Americans United jump up and down about “excessive entanglement,” and the courts oblige them.  But if the state government gets in the business of determining whether it thinks something a church is doing is “reasonably necessary” to accomplish its mission, then they are silent; the government’s inquiry into what is needed or not needed for ministry and second guessing a church’s decision is plenty fine.

What I’m about to say will be controversial, but churches should not be tax exempt for the same reason organizations like FACT, private schools, and local soup kitchens are exempt.  The latter organizations are exempted because the “profits” do not inure to anyone’s private benefit, as with stockholders in Microsoft, and the state has determined that they provide a “value” to the community in goods and services of equal or greater in value than the taxes they would generate.

But a church should not be exempt under the same reasoning.  It is not exempt because the “preacher” can’t sell the church and make a profit or because it provides benefits of a financial value greater than the taxes it would pay.  Rather, a church should be exempt because of a true separation of church and state, namely, the civil government has no taxing jurisdiction over the church.  Each has its own authority, purpose, and jurisdictional limits from God.  That is why, in the old western movies, the sheriff’s posse always stopped outside the church mission when the fleeing criminal went in the church.  The sheriff had no jurisdiction over what belonged to God.

That is an anathema to modern ears, but any other reason essentially puts the church over the state (as in days of Rome) or the state over the church (as in the case at issue).  Only when each is under God can the church and the state be truly separate.

So, according to the Court of Appeals, it would appear that in Tennessee there is no separation of church and state.  And you would think the ALCU and Americans United would be furious.