Should Churches Pay a City Fee for Safety Inspections?

If a church catches on fire, the city fire department comes in to help.

If there’s a crime on church property, the city police will come in to investigate.

The church pays no taxes for this, of course, but they benefit from being part of a city.

So what about city-mandated safety inspections? They can’t get around that in East St. Louis, Illinois, so the City Council assessed all churches and non-profit groups a $100 fee.

Now, the pastors are flipping out… partly over semantic issues since the city is calling this a “fee” which the churches are calling it a “tax”:

“Why you want to tax God’s house?” one pastor boomed at [Mayor Alvin] Parks. “Churches are struggling. This is a low blow.”

“I see the condition of the city and it hurts my heart,” said yet another. “But to come after the church — that’s not right.”

Mayor Parks gave all churches the option of paying their own way for the safety inspections — without city interference — but it would cost a lot more:

A pastor asked how much it would cost to train a member of his congregation to get the proper building inspection certification. Somewhere between $500 and $1,000, he was told. But even such inspections would not satisfy safety standards, Fire Chief Jason Blackmon told the pastor.

“I didn’t want to say this earlier,” Parks told the pastors. “But it’s so much easier to just have the city do it.”

So it’s in the best interests of the churches to have the city inspect their buildings — for both the city and the parishioners — but they want the city to do it for free or not at all. I guess they think they’re above such pedestrian fees because of the valuable myth-spreading services they provide…

There was one part of the article that surprised me:

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.

So it’d be a violation of church-state separation to ask the churches to pay up? I had to run that by the Freedom From Religion Foundation and this is what co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor told me:

If the city assesses everyone — including other [tax-]exempt organizations, such as schools, educational charities, etc. — $100.00, there is no discrimination.

In many situations, states have adopted language that specifically exempts churches from having to comply with basic safety requirements, and this is wrong-headed, even including churches housing daycares, for example, which can result in tragic fires and subject citizens to undue risks. The state has a bona fide interest in securing public safety and it makes sense for every entity to pay their fair share.

The churches should do the right thing and pay up just like everyone else. This isn’t extortion. This isn’t unfair. This is for the safety of everyone inside and outside the church.

(image via Shutterstock)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • primenumbers

    Yes more Christian privilege at work…

  • Rain

    “Why you want to tax God’s house?”

    Sez who? You? Citation please. Preferably the title, deed, and the birth certificate of the baby Jesus.

    • The Other Weirdo

      God seems to possess quite a few houses while children, many of them Christian, starve the world over.

  • Rain

    “Churches are struggling. This is a low blow.”

    This is eerily similar to complaints from youtube people that have crap content (myself included) that fewer and fewer people are going to their pages and watching their videos. Well sorry churches, but you have crap content. The big corporate secularism movement is moving in and taking all your views, I mean pews.

  • Ryan Jean

    The irony is that many of the churches that would be affected by this policy aren’t lying about how much such a simple fee would hurt them. Between dwindling attendance (and, to a lesser extent, belief) rates, intense competition for congregants due to the sheer plethora of churches, and lowered revenue due to the impacts of the economy on the tithing of their flock, many are struggling to stay open. They’re just so used to special treatment (and still getting it even in this case over taxation and other policies) that they can’t fathom the idea that they are, fundamentally, a failing business.

  • DougI

    If people aren’t forced to subsidize religion then Christians will claim persecution. Pastors, priests and ministers are professional beggars, of course they wouldn’t want to pay a fee everyone else has to pay, they want another handout.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    i doubt that the churches are struggling so much that $100 would force them to shut the doors.

    • b s

      No, but it really cuts into the “gay hookers and blow” funds.

    • pete084

      All they have to do is ramp up the scare stories of hell-fire and damnation to draw in extra $$$$$ from the “god fearing” congregation.

  • The Other Weirdo

    It sounds callous, but I think the city shouldn’t inspect churches. They are, as has been said, God’s houses and He should take care of them. If He lets them fall down and crush His own parishioners, that’s on Him, not us. Besides, whichever churches stay up despite disrepair would be a strong signal that that is the One True Church™. People should be willing to live with the consequences of their sincerely held beliefs.

    • C Peterson

      I generally agree, but we might feel differently if we lived across the street from one, and it caught on fire and took down the neighborhood. Building codes and inspections are not just for the safety of those in the buildings, they are also a matter of public safety.

      • 3lemenope

        Quite so. Responding to events like a building fire in a densely populated area is a collective action problem; one building owner may want to risk it, but their assumption of risk is intolerable because if they are wrong, the whole town burns down and not just their building.

        It’s a different story if you’re in the middle of nowhere.

      • The Other Weirdo

        If that’s the objection, then if churches aren’t to be subjected to code inspections, they shouldn’t be built in cities. Or as I like to remind Christians, Matthew 6:5-8. Problem solved.

    • roz77

      Seriously? Just because we think their beliefs are stupid doesn’t mean they deserve to have a church building that is dangerous to even be in. There are kids that go to churches. You think little kids choose to walk into a building that could be dangerous? Of course not. That you say people deserve to have to congregate in a dangerous building just because they’re religious and that multiple people have upvoted your stated is incredibly sad to me.

      • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

        i agree with roz. this is a classic ‘think of the children’ moment (not being sarcastic for once). $100 is not a lot of money, relatively speaking. if they can’t cough up that much, maybe they should close their doors. but the buildings need to be certified as safe for occupation.

    • DougI

      A church could be a fire hazard that sets off a huge blaze that affects other properties, or perhaps it could collapse in an earthquake. America has building codes so our infrastructure doesn’t collapse like in Haiti.

      I could compromise though, if churches don’t want to be inspected then the churches can be torn down. Seems fair enough.

  • jdm8

    That’s cheap price to find whether your building is sound.

    If the price is non-discriminatory, then they don’t have a leg to stand on.

  • Rain

    Whatever happened to “render unto Caesar?” It’s funny how their pious arses suddenly become acutely Biblically illiterate when it is a pain in the arse for their own pious arses.

    • C Peterson

      They’re biblical literalists. Since there are no literal caesars anymore, they figure they’re home free on that one.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Many Christians want to IGNORE “separation of church and state” when they want to endorse political candidates and dictate what secular laws the rest of us should follow (e.g., re: birth control, abortion, end-of-life, who we can marry, etc.).

    But once there is any government tax or fee they quickly pick up the banner of “separation of church and state” and seemingly intentionally misinterpret it to mean “the government should give special PRIVILEGES to churches” (rather than the true meaning that the government should be fair/neutral and treat churches no differently than other not-for-profit groups).

    Gotta love the christian hypocrisy!

  • Michael

    Wouldn’t sending police and fire services to a church in a time of need violate separation of church and state too? Same with having them conform to building codes?

    • newavocation

      They are already exempt from some ADA code requirements, but I hear they do a lot of healing in them there churches, so wheelchairs aren’t needed.

  • ortcutt

    ““Why you want to tax God’s house?” one pastor boomed at [Mayor Alvin] Parks.”

    No religious privilege here, folks. Move on. Nothing to look at.

  • C Peterson

    If you live in a place where a governmental entity delivers utilities like water and electricity, should churches be exempt from any “fees” associated with them? Are there churches making that claim?

  • Lori F – MN

    Oh good grief! If their congregation is 100, and each person pays $1 every year for the safety of the church, themselves and visitors.
    I presume they pay for inspections during construction. They pay for the permits for construction. Do they register annually as a non-profit? Is there a fee for that?
    Is the time and knowledge of the inspector not worth $100 each year? What is the normal fee for other businesses?

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    As IAmNotALawyer understand, the core case law would be Walz v Tax Commission of NYC. Either course, taxation of churches or exemption, occasions some degree of involvement with religion. [...] The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship, since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches, but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state. However, contrast: The appellant has not established even an arguable quantitative correlation between the payment of an ad valorem property tax and the receipt of these municipal benefits. The payment here is for an explicit and mandatory service.

    In subsequent rulings in the Walz precedent line, Swaggart v California clearly indicates that states may cast some shadow of taxation on churches.

    In so far as this tax is applied to all non-profits as well as for-profit corporations and private individuals, the law is neutral and of general applicability. There’s probably enough grounds for challenge that a case could be filed and survive summary dismissal, but negligible chance of prevailing at trial and subsequent appeals process. At best, this is an attempt to generate friction in the arena of politics.

  • tinker

    I live in an unincorporated area that does not get government run emergency fire department help. We have a private company that provides that service. I am sure that the 6 Mormon churches within 5 miles of us have paid the fees to this private company for fire protection. I don’t see a difference. Churches should not be exempt from paying into the fund for fire and police. Whether the government runs it or not. Like C Peterson said; ‘If you live in a place where a governmental entity delivers utilities
    like water and electricity, should churches be exempt from any “fees”
    associated with them?’

  • Stev84

    Proving once again that churches are nothing but parasites

  • guest

    Churches should pay taxes if the insist on involving themselves in politics and public policies. They should pay reparations for all of the crimes they’ve committed over the millenia. They should pay safety inspection fees and they should pay for the dumbing down of America. You bet your @$$ they should pay.

  • ShoeUnited

    ““Why you want to tax God’s house?” one pastor boomed at [Mayor Alvin] Parks.”

    You would think a carpenter would keep his certification up to date and know local zoning codes.

  • Guest

    However, I always thought that the presence of a lightning rod on a church signified a lack of faith..
    (Or that science is stronger than belief…) :D

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

    Oh, but they don’t need those safety inspections, GHAWD will keep them safe!

    *gag*

    Seriously, they should either pay up or be shut down.

  • http://gristleoflife.wordpress.com/ Analog Kid

    It’s time for religion’s free pass to expire. Either charge everyone or no one, regardless of religious or non-religious affiliation. That is the only way to be completely fair.

  • pete084

    I don’t know how it works over there, but basic council services are covered by local taxes, it is the additional services that have to have an admin fee, which is a lot less than charges by “for profit” outfits. This is nothing new either, whilst there may be newer services, the old ones such as planning applications have always attracted a fee.

    I’m sure it’s pretty much that same there too!

  • Camorris

    Why do churches even need to own property? As I see it, a church is its congregants and not the building. Yes, they do need a place to assemble, and assemble safely, but that could just as easily be done in a rented facility. I see so many churches in my neck of the woods struggling with declining and aging memberships that are dedicating most of their efforts to simply maintaining their structures. With the ever increasing costs of keeping the buildings habitable, I expect a time will come when local denominations will have to band together to time share in a common facility. This should be very interesting if Christian groups that can’t stand each other have to co-operate out of necessity.

    • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Pink_Unicorn Anna

      You see a lot of that where I am. A smaller religious group will share space with an established church. One of the local Assemblies of God churches rents space from a United Methodist congregation. I don’t know how they reconcile (if they do) their divergent views.

  • newavocation

    It’s funny but very sad, how these churches feel so privileged to be exempt from city fees but feel fine with having opening prayers at each East St. Louis City Council Meeting!!!