Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science


Gill argues property rights is next important religious liberty issue

Nov 4, 2013

 This morning University of Washington political scientist Tony Gill spoke to the Future of American Politics class on the future threats to religious liberty.  Gill, who has written The Political Origins of Religious Liberty and is the host of Research on Religion pod casts, argued that the real issue that Christians should be concerned about is religious property rights and that these rights are more improtant than public displays of nativity scenes at Christmas.  

Gill started by talking about a church, Timberline Family Christian Fellowship in King County Washington.  The church had a small kitchen, about the size of a dorm room, was prohibited from building a gym, and could not host secular events.  The restrictions suprised Gill and led him to investigate the reasons for this.  He found that King County passed a moratorium on building churches and private schools in King County ostensibly to prevent further suburban sprawl.  The fear was that a new church or school would lead people to build homes near the church or school and contribute to sprawl.  

The real reason, he has determined, is that King County is interested in protecting its tax base and funding its programs.  Instead of urban sprawl, King County has promoted regulations that promote high density housing. The high density housing is basically homes on zero lots that basically touch the house next door.  By cramming more homes into a small area, the county can tax more homes and bring in more property tax revenue.  From King County's perspective, taxing private property is much preferable to churches which pay much less in property tax.  In fact, local school districts were active participants and observers in the adoption of the moratorium on building churches. He concluded that a church with a large kitchen and gym could start a private school or be a place for home school coops.  Since Washington funds schools on a per pupil basis, the creation of private schools would reduce state funding to school that King County wants to avoid. 

The decision of King County is important because of the issue of eminent domain.  In Cypress, CA, a local church wanted to build a new church building and started buying lots in the area.  When they were about to have all of the lots, the local government came in and used eminent domain to seize all of the land and prevented the church from building there because of a fear of traffic congestion.  However, the resulting lawsuit unearthed the real reason as the city wanted to put a Costco there which would brings in more city revenue.  Using the public interest provision of Kelo v New London, the city seized the land to increase city revenue even though the church wanted the land to build a sanctuary. 

These decisions by local governments are a threat to religious institutions because local governments need new sources of revenue to fund their activities.  Much like King John seized churches in the 12th Century and then resold them to the church to raise revenue, local governments see churches, which pay minimum property taxes, as a threat to their revenue stream.  Even though the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act prevents government from discriminating against religious organization in property cases, most churches are unfamiliar with the law and lack the money to pursue legal cases. 

The primary threat to Christians is that these decisions threaten the church's mission to evangelize.  If local governments minimize the number of churches, there is less evangelism occurring which harms Christianity. The future may be the rise of more house churches which pay property taxes as private dwellings or more megachurches which put all of the Christians in one place instead of many.  The problem is that most medium size churches are most affected and small churches cannot become megachurches unless they become medium size churches first.