One of the Supreme Court's conservatives blasted the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, on Tuesday, saying officials improperly delved into the internal religious practices of a church after it requested a property tax exemption for two of its ministers.
"The First Amendment does not permit bureaucrats or judges to subject religious views to verification," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote, dissenting from the court's refusal to hear the case, in which the city denied the exemption.
The appeal came from the New Life in Christ Church, which bought a house in Fredericksburg, about 50 miles southeast of Washington, D.C., for a couple hired as youth ministers. The church said their duties involved providing leadership over the church's ministry to college students.
Virginia's constitution allows a real estate tax exemption for property occupied by churches and for the residences of their ministers. A separate state law says the exemption applies to "the residence of the minister of the church." The city concluded that the house for the couple did not qualify, so the church sued. It lost in state courts.
Gorsuch said the city wrongly probed into the church's internal affairs, seeking to verify its religious rules.
"The framers of our Constitution were acutely aware how governments in Europe had sought to control and manipulate religious practices and churches," he wrote. "They resolved that America would be different."
Efforts to subject religious beliefs to verification "have no place in a free country," he said.
The city told the court that the church was free to name as many ministers as it wished, but state law provides a property tax exemption for one residence only — for "the minister" of the church.
The case "was never about delving into ecclesiastical pursuits or abridging the church's right to exercise its religion," city lawyers said. It was instead "about the authority of a court to make a determination of relevant facts, based on the evidence, when adjudicating a church's application for Virginia's tax exemption."
The Supreme Court apparently struggled with whether to take the appeal, bringing it up 10 times during closed-door conferences. But Gorsuch was the only justice to express his disappointment that the court eventually declined to hear the case.