Most cities, counties, and states would not contest whether in any recognized and established denomination or church a parsonage owned by the local church inhabited by a Youth Minister would be a tax exempt residence. Indeed, most would not do discovery over whether a Youth Minister was really a “minister” whether ordained or not. Most would not have the courage to delve into whether religious doctrine permitted women to serve in ministry. Most courts would not allow such inquiries and would treat them as barred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine and the Ministerial Exception. However, when courts snore, justice remains truly blind and ineffective.
In Trustee of the New Life in Christ Church v City of Fredericksburg, 595 US ___, Slip Op., Dissent of Denial of Certiorari (Gorsuch, Justice) (2022), the City of Fredericksburg conducted all the inquiries described in the introductory paragraph. The City of Fredericksburg declared that no local church in the Presbyterian Church in America could have a Youth Minister that was not ordained, that no woman could be “ordained” in that denomination, and that only “ordained” ministers residing in parsonages could qualify the church owned parsonage for tax exemption. The City took the position that “a church’s religious rules are “subject to verification” by government officials.” The trial court did not reverse the City or otherwise refuse to enforce its edict. On appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court, that court declined to review the judgment. The church sought certiorari to the United States Supreme Court but that court refused to hear the case. The dissent by Justice Gorsuch followed.
On the revenue side, cities, counties, and other levels of government are more like vampires than tax umpires. Only very brave and dedicated elected officials can stop such nonsense. The strange thing about the reported case was that as soon as the city government’s obvious effort to rule upon “church rules” became apparent, the local church should have sought, but did not, federal relief in a proceeding based upon §1983 or even the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.