Hypocrisy in government is nothing new. But when we see it, and it is blatant, it is hard not to take note. Such is the case in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
The Washington Post reports that Prince George’s County, Maryland, is offering churches an exemption to the highly controversial “Rain Tax” if churches preach sermons on environmental stewardship or engage their congregations in environmental curriculum. For those not familiar with the “Rain Tax,” in sum, it is a fee assessed to churches, commercial property owners, and private residences based on the size of their “impervious surface.” Sidewalks, parking lots, and roofs can all be considered an “impervious surface.”
Such a system reeks of hypocrisy. Churches are constantly told to stay out of the political process. The Johnson Amendment threatens the tax-exempt status of any church whose pastor endorses candidates for office or preaches on “political matters” because such an action would be considered participating or intervening on behalf of a candidate for office. In Prince George’s County, churches are being financially rewarded for preaching a government-approved message. Conversely, churches that do not preach this government-approved message are still subject to hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in crippling fees. It appears that in Prince George’s County, elected officials, when in the furtherance of their own political platform, believe it is constitutional to entangle the government into the content preached from pulpits.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion....” Furthermore, Supreme Court precedent is clear on this issue. “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244 (1982).
Here, Prince George’s County is not only showing preference, but is actually financially aiding churches that preach its government-stamped, green sermon. Regardless of one’s perspective on environmental issues (I for one would love to see the Chesapeake Bay preserved), showing preference to certain churches over others because of content-based or doctrinal reasons is contrary to the very core of religious freedom.
Truthfully, the particular content of this incentive is moot. It makes no difference that the incentive is created to prevent runoff water that pollutes the Chesapeake Bay. What is at issue here is that the incentive is content-based, which is an important distinction. The Supreme Court stated, “In short, when we are presented with a state law granting a denominational preference, our precedents demand that we treat the law as suspect and that we apply strict scrutiny in adjudging its constitutionality.” Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 246 (1982).
Strict Scrutiny requires the government, in this case Prince George’s County, to show that this incentive is in the furtherance of a compelling state interest and that it is narrowly tailored in the furtherance of that state interest. As such, the county would have the burden to show that preventing rain runoff is a compelling state interest and that there are not less restrictive alternatives that could accomplish this interest. Such a high standard of judicial review is exceptionally difficult to meet.
Finally, in addition to the apparent contradiction that this incentive has with the Establishment Clause, it is also troubling because it is a slippery slope. If such content-based incentive is allowed to become precedent, and the particular content of the incentive itself is moot, then the state would have complete freedom to create and incentivize its own state orthodoxy. Taken to its logical conclusion, a county could offer financial incentives to churches whose pastors preach a state-approved message on marriage, abortion, or gun ownership. Even in Maryland, a state that is left-leaning, viewpoints on these issues can vary greatly among the counties.
Religious freedom is not a Democrat or Republican issue; it is an issue of Human Rights. As such, government, at all levels, should stay out of the pulpit and respect a pastor’s right to preach the sermon that God places on his heart to preach. Pastors in Prince George’s County need to stand up and proclaim that their church pulpits are not for sale…not now…and not ever!
Mark Trammell is the Legal Director at the Liberty Center for Law & Policy
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