Panama City, FL - Circuit Court Judge Glenn Hess held a hearing this morning in a case involving the constitutionality of assessing property taxes on church property used as a pastor's residence and for other church uses. Several months after Faith Christian Family Church filed a lawsuit against Bay County Property Appraiser Rick Barnett to contest the tax assessment, Pastor Marcus Bishop retained Liberty Counsel to take over the case.
During today's hearing, Judge Hess granted Liberty Counsel's request to file an amended complaint on behalf of the church. The amended complaint points out that assessing a tax on the church parsonage violates several provisions of the United States Constitution, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), Florida's Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other state statutes.
Amending a complaint is a routine matter, typically accomplished with consent of the parties. Barnett is using a private attorney to defend this case. The attorney refused to agree that the church"s complaint could be amended, forcing Liberty Counsel to litigate the motion to amend at today"s hearing.
Church property used as a parsonage is eligible for a tax exemption throughout Florida. Bay County"s property appraiser has developed a new and unique standard for determining whether to grant tax exemptions to church property. Barnett is alone among Florida property appraisers in refusing to exempt church parsonages that are not adjacent to houses of worship. Barnett denied the church"s application for a tax exemption on its parsonage and has assessed property taxes on the property since 2004.
The church uses the parsonage not only as a residence for the pastor, but also as an extension of the church's ministry. The parsonage is used as an office for church business, for Bible study and sermon preparation, pastoral counseling sessions, church staff, committee and board meetings, church leadership training classes, church fellowship events and dinners, prayer groups and Bible studies, storage of church records, production and storage of sets and materials for its television productions and as housing for visiting ministers, speakers and out-of-town board members.
Erik Stanley, Chief Counsel of Liberty Counsel, commented: "Churches should to be able to focus on their mission, rather than worrying about the next move of their local property appraiser. This battle has broad implications for all churches in Florida. If property appraisers are allowed to decide which church property is taxable, then churches will gain exemptions only at the whim of government officials seeking more revenue. The power to tax is the power to censor, to control and ultimately to destroy."