Fastest Growing Church In The U.S. Files Suit Claiming Violation Of Free Speech

The “fastest growing church in the United States” has filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Alabaster in the state of Alabama, claiming that a new series of ordinances is intended to restrict their right to freedom of religion. The Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which has a worldwide baptized membership of about 16.3 million people, has kicked up its efforts in the past few years to attract followers with a series of outreach activities, including door to door solicitation.

That solicitation, says the City of Alabaster, is subject to the same laws as anyone else, including requirements to register and pay the license fees, church or no church. The South Central Conference of Seventh-Day Adventists claims differently, saying that such requirements limit their ability to to promote their Summer Student Missionary Program and as a result, imposes on the right to free speech.

Specifically, the City of Alabaster has a business license ordinance which requires “any of the businesses or vocations herein contained in the city” to obtain a business license (chances are, you have a similar requirement in your hometown). Secondly, the City of Alabaster requires a permit for solicitation (again, there is probably a similar requirement where you live). Failure to comply can result in a fine, as well as potential jail time and “hard labor” (yes, seriously).

On its face, it sounds like the city is just being a bully by throwing its weight around when the church just wants to say hello to its neighbors. But there’s a little more to it. You see, the trigger for the lawsuit wasn’t merely the existence of the ordinance. One of the participants in the Summer Student Missionary Program was charged with “selling books door-to-door without a city of Alabaster permit.” If true, that likely qualifies as business or commercial activity.

The church offers a different account. They claim that the literature was actually free but admit that they were simultaneously soliciting donations.

Po-tay-toe, Po-tah-toe? Does the difference even matter?

The city claims that it doesn’t matter since solicitation of funds is treated the same as solicitation of sales:

The city welcomes and respects groups and individuals of all beliefs and persuasions to enjoy equally the freedoms guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Constitution of the State of Alabama.

Both Alabama state law governing door-to-door charitable solicitation, and the ordinances of the city governing the same, have been and will continue to be applied neutrally to all individuals and groups who solicit sales and charitable contributions door-to-door within the city, as well as paid solicitors for nonprofit organizations and groups. The city does not and will not tolerate any form of discrimination against any group or individual on any basis.

Some observers think differently, labeling the license fee a “tax” and claiming that the distinction matters for legal and tax purposes (yes, there’s that “what’s a tax?” question again). The church – while shying away from the tax label – does make the argument that a requirement that the church register for solicitation and pay a fee is overly burdensome and “imposes significant burdens on the applicant.”

It raises an interesting question:  would the distinction between a fee and tax even matter in this case? After all, aren’t churches always tax exempt? Not completely. Churches are de facto tax exempt from federal income tax liability – the fancy Latin means that churches don’t have to (in most cases) take proactive steps to be avoid federal income tax on revenue related to their mission. Depending on other factors, however, churches may still be subject to certain business taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes and sales taxes unless specifically exempt by statute or exempt by application. And that’s likely what would happen here.

In this case, the church has asked the court to temporarily stop the city from enforcing or threatening to enforce the ordinances against them until the matter can be heard by “a jury trial on all issues triable by jury.” I suspect that the church expects to prevail in the court of popular opinion.

That said, what do you think: should charitable organizations and churches be subject to the same kinds of solicitation laws as for profit companies? Or are registration requirements and fees just a veiled violation of free speech?

(HT to Courthouse News)

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