Asking Churches To Pay For Fire Protection Isn’t a Burden on Their Religious Rights

While churches, like other non-profits, don’t have to pay taxes, they still use the same city resources as everyone else. So if a church catches on fire, the fire department will come in to help — not just to save the church, but to protect the community around it. (If the church across the street from you caught fire, you can bet you’d want firefighters to put it out immediately.)

Same with any crime on church property; the city police will come in to investigate.

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How does the city pay for this protection when the churches aren’t paying taxes? Simple. They charge a set fee to all non-profits specifically to cover the costs of social services. (The churches are welcome to train and provide their own firefighters, for example, provided they meet all required standards, but that’d be a hell of a lot more complicated, not to mention expensive.)

There are places where churches are exempt from paying even these fees, but as long as they’re assessed the same as everyone else, there’s really no legal issue with asking them to cover the costs of being part of a larger community. That’s just part of public safety.

In Fort Walton Beach, Florida, city officials have recommended an “annual fire assessment of 5 cents per square foot” for all non-profits. But some churches in the area are acting like this is specifically harming their ability to convert people.

The First Baptist Church campus consists of the church sanctuary, its Christian Life Center, a fellowship hall, administrative building and three educational buildings, all of which total 122,000 square feet. At 5 cents per square foot, the church would be charged an annual fire fee of $6,100.

That amount would pay for a lot of community missions, [Rev. Howard] Gates said.

City officials say the fire fee is not a tax and can be charged to the 37 tax-exempt churches in Fort Walton Beach.

One minister even admitted she used the fire department in the past but still didn’t want to pay the fee:

The Rev. Sharon Schuler, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Fort Walton Beach on Beal Parkway, said she appreciates the fire department and understands that it needs revenue.

“I have had to call on them for help before, and I appreciate their efficiency,” Schuler said. “But it’s too bad (city officials) can’t look at what we do to help the community and realize we do our fair share.”

That may be the best argument in favor of the fee. Who’s to say the church is helping the community more than some other charity? If cities were to rank non-profits by non-tangible things they provided, which factors should be weighted at the top? It’s just a ridiculous thought experiment since there’s no right answer.

The best thing to do is to charge everyone the same way.

Fort Walton Beach hasn’t decided what to do just yet. They’re still gathering information. But this shouldn’t be controversial. If groups in their community are using city services, they should have to pay for them like everybody else.

(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Alex for the link)

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