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 organizations provide the community with services—propelled by their religious obligations and beliefs—and save a municipality tax money that would have gone toward those services.
The Rev. Jerome Rogers of Shining Light Missionary Baptist Church pointed out at the City Council meeting that the churches of East St. Louis do a lot of good in the community—from teaching computer classes and resume writing classes to cleaning up dilapidated properties.
Church-state separation advocates say by demanding payment of churches for city services, and levying fines for nonpayment (and potentially putting a church in jeopardy of shutting its doors), a municipality would be entangling itself in church affairs.
In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that freeing houses of worship from paying taxes "restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other."
In 2010, the town of Mission, Kan., attempted to levy a "transportation utility fee"—also called a "driveway tax"—on churches to fund road work. A Baptist church and a Catholic church sued, arguing the town was breaking the law by disguising a tax as a fee.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law professor and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the idea of tax exemptions for religious institutions has evolved over the last two centuries "into something more and more generous."
Today, she said, it's tempting for municipalities to try and revert back to older taxing philosophies in a bad economy.
"Smaller jurisdictions with budget problems, in times of crisis, naturally look to nonprofits and the vast majority of those are going to be churches," Gordon said.