EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — After the city's director of emergency services delivered an opening prayer, the City Council took up some standard issues—maintenance of a traffic light, filling in a pot hole.
But eventually the council members got around to Item 8E—the reason City Hall was filled with pastors on a Thursday night.
On its face, Item 8E—an amendment to an ordinance requiring safety inspections for businesses—seems like standard City Council fare.
In reality, it touches on one of the most fundamental and contentious aspects of American democracy: the separation of church and state. And it has pitted the pastors in one of the most church-packed cities in the country against a municipal government whose council members sit in their pews on Sundays.
At issue was a new $100 "annual registration fee" that the city imposed on churches and nonprofits. Most of the fee will go toward building safety and fire inspections, and $25 toward administration costs.
But East St. Louis pastors say Mayor Alvin Parks is playing a game of semantics, using the word "fee" where "tax" is more accurate.
They say they only learned about the new fee when they began receiving letters from the city, warning that the churches would be turned over to a collection agency if they didn't pay. Nonpayment, the letter said, "may reflect negatively on your credit record, lien on property and other remedies that the State of Illinois allows."
Those building new churches pay fees for licenses and permits, just like anyone else putting up a new structure. But churches and nonprofits don't pay taxes.
The traditional argument for that position has been that the ...