$17,000 tax bill hits South Dakota church

As cash-strapped cities and municipalities try to find creative ways to generate revenue, some are setting a dangerous precedent when they look to churches as a targeted source.
Joe Infranco, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), has seen a marked increase in the number of cases handled by ADF’s 1,800 allied attorneys, who represent churches free of charge.

“Whether out of ignorance or malice, (municipalities) are slowly chipping away at the Church’s tax exemption when and where they are able,” said Infranco. “This is a very dangerous trend.”

Just this week, an ADF-allied attorney filed an appeal in a South Dakota state court on behalf of First Evangelical Free Church of Rapid City, S.D., after the Pennington County Board of Commissioners refused to dismiss a $17,000 property tax bill for land the church purchased in 2006.

Despite three South Dakota Supreme Court decisions that ruled such taxes should not be levied, the board voted unanimously (with one abstention) on June 1 to side with the “recommendations made by the Director of Equalization and Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Jay Alderman to deny the abatement request on the grounds that it did not meet the requirements for exempt status.”

“Government officials should not be allowed to ignore the law, the Constitution, and supporting court precedents to target a church with exorbitant taxes it doesn’t truly owe,” said Stephen J. Wesolick, the ADF attorney representing the church.

Experts point to the view of the diminished role of the church as the primary reason for the increase in government encroachment.

“There is a cultural erosion, in terms of the value of a church,” Infranco said. “Rather than seeing the church’s comprehensive benefit to a community, it sees it in economic terms. Simply put, ‘How much money can we get from this piece of property?'”

Nevertheless, churches should not feel defeated.

“If citizens are active in their communities and discerning about what elected officials are saying – or signaling – the alarm can be sent to our neighbors and friends,” Infranco said, “and we can help to reverse this trend.”

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