“Who Owns My Church?” Seeking Supreme Clarification on Church Property Rights

When a local church or other house of worship leaves a denomination for theological or other reasons, who or what keeps its real property and other assets?  Given the ever-shifting lines of the American religious landscape, this is unfortunately a perennial question – for religious organizations and sometimes for the courts, too.   In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly resisted efforts to address property rights battles between the Episcopal denomination and breakaway local churches. A newly filed petition arising from a South Carolina court ruling against a local church may present just the right Supreme Court opportunity to resolve lower federal and state courts’ conflicts about how best to balance First Amendment rights among denominations and their local churches.

The Blues Brothers: Illinois Property Taxes and a Mission from God

In the iconic Blues Brothers movie, Sister Mary recruits Jake and Elwood to help raise money for delinquent property taxes on the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up. The music is legendary, and the Sweet Home Chicago-area scenes are memorable – Maxwell Street, Lower Wacker, the Daley Center, and the destruction of the Dixie Square Mall.  But wait: did they really need to pay those property taxes, or could they have avoided the Illinois Troopers and Jail House Rock all together? The best legal strategy surely would have made for a dull movie. Cruising around in a ’74 Dodge with cop tires and cop suspension beats paperwork after all!  But there is a better answer under Illinois law for the rest of us, with no road shenanigans necessary.

The Gift of Religious Tax Exemptions, On Balance

Christmas is the season for gift-giving as Christians around the world celebrate Jesus’ birth. More broadly, all religions within the United States enjoy the gift of tax exemption.  But just how far does tax exemption extend – and is it truly a gift, or a right?  Does tax exemption extend only under Section 501(c)(3)?  What other taxes also affect churches?  Tax scholar and law professor Edward Zelinsky answers these questions in the newly published book Taxing the Church (Oxford University Press 2017), addressing the diversity of which houses of worship are taxed, the normative question of whether they should be taxed, and provides a fourfold framework for understanding church taxation.

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