The city of Roseville, Minnesota, notified Advent Lutheran Church five months ago that it would require the 300-member church to pay $158,000 for road improvements.

Officials of this Twin Cities suburb of 34,000, with seven shopping malls and an unemployment rate of 1.9 percent, called the assessment a routine charge for the project to improve Josephine Road, which runs alongside church property. But Thomas Basich, the senior pastor and founder of the church, calls the assessment "government-sponsored terrorism."

Church leaders complain that the city is unfairly assessing a nonprofit religious organization for a public-works project that will benefit the entire town.

"It's not so much an amount but whether there should be a tax at all," Basich told Christianity Today. "An assessment is a tax. We have to draw a line somewhere, and the line is zero."

Special assessments on churches have occurred before, says Jordan Lorence, an attorney with the Northstar Legal Center, a conservative organization in Fairfax, Virginia, that defends religious freedom. But Lorence fears that revenue-hungry cities may be getting bolder: "Cities can use special assessments as a weapon against churches."

Attorney Lynn Basich, Thomas Basich's daughter, is representing Advent. She says the proposed assessment infringes on the church's right to free exercise of its religion. "Here you have a local government interfering with … the exercise of our religion," she said. "The power to tax is the power to destroy."

The total cost for the proposed Josephine Road reconstruction—including the street, sewer improvements, a new sidewalk, and landscaping—is $967,114. The state has provided $817,267. Advent Lutheran's proposed assessment is $158,000, while the city has asked 33 property owners along the road to pay a total of $139,282. The city is paying nothing.

Josephine Road is a busy side street. The portion in dispute handles 2,400 vehicles daily. The 33 residential properties will pay for sidewalk and storm-sewer improvements—but not for street reconstruction. Advent, however, is being charged for 100 percent of the street-reconstruction cost—$94,176.

"Churches are charged more than residential rates because they generate more traffic, so they are assessed as a [private] school or business would be assessed," said Karl Keel, Roseville's former public works director.

Roseville Mayor John Kysylyczyn has taken issue with his own city's assessment practices. "I have a problem with the assessment policy, because in some cases we have unequal taxation," Kysylyczyn said.

He is encouraging Advent to wait for fall elections, when new council members will be elected and the assessment policy can be reexamined. Advent seems in no mood to wait, however.

The city has sometimes lowered such assessments through negotiations. Galilee Lutheran Church negotiated an initial assessment of $43,203 down to $11,300 in 1998.

Thomas Basich says he does not object to paying fees for city services as long as there is a direct benefit to the church and the church is not being singled out. Roseville officials have offered to soften the impact by agreeing to a 15-year payment plan, but the resulting interest would balloon the total payments to $255,000.

Furthermore, Basich claims that the large assessment is ultimately a ploy by Roseville officials to strong-arm Advent into selling parcels of its 11-acre wooded property to the city for additional parking space. He has obtained city documents and maps displaying possible scenarios for the church acreage.

In February, Advent filed a notice of intent to appeal to Ramsey County District Court. Advent is exploring other legal options in case the appeal fails. Thomas Basich hopes to have the assessment dismissed, but the church has no legal precedents on which it can rely.

"If we surrender, we will be nullifying our tax-exempt status and the city will continue to impose taxes [that] are unconstitutional," Basich says.

Basich has waged legal war before. Formerly a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), Basich secured an out-of-court settlement with the ELCA over the right to receive accumulated pension money.

Related Elsewhere

Both Christianity Today and The Lutheran covered Advent Lutheran's earlier battles. The St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press has covered its battle over the assessment.

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