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Justice Gorsuch torches Virginia city in church tax case dissent, says its actions 'have no place in a free country'

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ERIN SCHAFF/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch torched the city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, in a blistering dissent on Tuesday after city leaders probed into a church's internal affairs in order to deny a tax exemption for a ministry couple's home.

"The First Amendment does not permit bureaucrats or judges to subject religious views to verification," Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote in a dissent following the court's refusal to hear the case. "About this, the Court has spoken plainly and consistently for many years."

At issue in the case was a tax-exemption claim on a home made by the New Life in Christ Church in Fredericksburg. The church had just hired a married couple to serve as college ministers in their congregation and had purchased a home for the couple to live in, expecting the purchase to qualify as a "ministerial house" under state law.

But to the church's surprise, the city denied their claim. Moreover, in denying the claim, the city argued that the church misunderstood its own religious doctrine. After having delved into the religious order of the church, the city concluded that based on the Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America, college ministers do not qualify as "ministers" and so the church wasn't entitled to a tax credit on the home.

In response, the church explained that the city was wrong in its interpretation of the church's faith and tradition. It argued that nothing in its rules or the Book of Church Order “prohibits a particular church from hiring ministers to serve as messengers and teachers of the faith" neither do they nullify a church's "broad authority to govern its own affairs."

But the city was unpersuaded by the church's arguments and maintained its denial of the property tax credit, concluding the city has the right to "make a determination of relevant facts, based on the evidence, when adjudicating a church's application for Virginia's tax exemption."

Gorsuch was enraged. He argued that "bureaucratic efforts to 'subject' religious beliefs to 'verification' have no place in a free country."

"Even now, before this Court, the City continues to insist that a church’s religious rules are 'subject to verification' by government officials," the justice said in his dissent. "I would grant the petition and summarily reverse."

"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. In this country, we would not subscribe to the 'arrogant pretension' that secular officials may serve as 'competent Judge[s] of Religious truth.'"

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