ACLU of Alaska Says Tax Exemption Favors Religious Groups Over Other Charitable Organizations

Affiliate: ACLU of Alaska
June 12, 2006 12:00 am

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ANCHORAGE — The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska and two Anchorage residents today filed a lawsuit to overturn State House Bill 334, which gives religious groups a special property tax exemption that is not available to other charitable organizations.

“Both the U.S. and Alaska Constitutions bar the government from showing favoritism for one religion over another – or for religion generally over non-religion,” said ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Michael W. Macleod-Ball. “Under the new law, only religious institutions get the exemption for educator housing – and in actual practice in Anchorage, only the Anchorage Baptist Temple will get such an exemption. This favoritism is impermissible under our longstanding traditions of government neutrality toward religion.”

Macleod-Ball cited testimony offered to the Legislature on State Senate Bill 193 – the companion bill to HB 334 – showing that the bill was intended to provide a direct benefit to the Anchorage Baptist Temple. ABT is one of the few religious institutions in the state that would benefit from the new law. ABT and its pastor lobbied vigorously for the law, urging church members to call their legislators to ensure the bill’s passage as the regular session wound down.

“This legislation has the impermissible effect of not just favoring religion generally – but of helping one particular Anchorage religious institution over all others,” added Macleod-Ball. That’s wrong, that’s unfair, and that’s unconstitutional.”

The ACLU of Alaska filed its lawsuit today in Superior Court in Anchorage on behalf of commercial real estate broker Ray Metcalfe and Keith Coonrod, a retired disabled U.S. Army veteran, both from Anchorage. In the complaint, Coonrod and Metcalfe object “because [the law] creates a special property tax exemption for religious organizations that is not available for, and does not apply equally to, non-religious charitable organizations.” The ACLU of Alaska has requested an order striking down the law and an injunction barring it from taking effect.

The bill was signed into law in late May by Governor Frank H. Murkowski. Alaskan law already provided a tax exemption for church property used for exclusively religious purposes, but the new law brought church-owned housing for its religious teachers under the exemption. The ACLU called this problematic because it goes beyond what the state provides for other charitable groups.

ACLU staff attorney Jason Brandeis, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, expects the challenge to move along relatively quickly. “The law doesn’t take effect until late August,” Brandeis said. “We might have to ask for a preliminary injunction if it looks like the matter can’t be resolved by the time the law takes effect – but we’ll wait and see how things proceed.”

The state has 40 days to respond to the ACLU’s complaint.

The case is Coonrod, Metcalfe, et al. v. State of Alaska.

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