January 29, 2014; Christian Post

In Nebraska of all places, State Senator Ernie Chambers (D-Omaha) has introduced a bill to deny religious organizations their property tax exemptions. His argument in favor of Legislative Bill 675 is that making religious organizations pay taxes will ease the tax bills of Nebraska’s citizens and reduce the need for state aid to local governments and schools. Chambers estimates that there are 3,000 church properties in the state.

He may have described the bill in terms of tax relief and tax revenue, but Chambers says he is an atheist, and therefore might be opposed by definition to the concept of state subsidization of religion through property tax exemptions. However, he suggested that Jesus would have wanted churches to be taxed, citing Jesus’s statement, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

State Sen. Beau McCoy (R-Omaha), a candidate for governor, immediately countered Chambers by citing the Book of Ezra, “You are also to know that you have no authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of the priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers, temple servants or other workers at this house of God.” LB675 was also countered by Jim Cunningham of the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Cindy Johnson of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, who cited the humanitarian services provided by churches as an appropriate tradeoff for their property tax exemptions.

Among Nebraska legislators, there were some erudite historical references made in reaction to the Chambers bill. State Senator Galen Hadley (Non-Partisan-Kearny) noted that arguments about the tax status of churches dated back to the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and Senator Paul Schumacher (R-Columbus) cited tensions between “the altar and the king” from Charlemagne’s reign in the ninth century. The topic has been rarely broached in contemporary U.S. politics, but perhaps the tide is turning on whether the relatively small portion of church expenditures that go to other than sacerdotal functions merit nonprofit-like tax exemptions.—Rick Cohen