The greening of the church

by Janie B. Cheaney

Posted on Monday, December 1, 2014, at 1:09 pm

One of the reasons Republican Larry Hogan won the governor’s seat in Maryland is because the tax policies of his Democrat predecessor were unpopular, such as the so-called “rain tax” (official title: “Stormwater Remediation Fee”) that accessed citizens, business, and churches in proportion to how much impervious surface (asphalt and concrete) covers their property. The extra money was intended to help cover the costs of protecting the Chesapeake Bay from pollution due to water runoff. 

Calling a tax a “fee” doesn’t make it any less a tax, and the Rev. Nathaniel B. Thomas of Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church in Forestville, Md., was among the first to protest. “Once Uncle Sam finds a way to take your money, he doesn’t stop,” he said.

But Thomas and fellow pastors found the Department of Environmental Resources in Prince George’s County to be amenable—sort of. Together they negotiated a deal whereby if the churches would install eco-friendly measures like rain barrels and permeable surfaces, the county would underwrite most of the cost and reduce the remediation fee. And one more thing: Pastors would be expected to promote environmentally friendly practices to their congregations, from the classroom or in the pulpit. 

Is this a violation of church and state? Not at all, department director Adam Ortiz assured WBAL Radio: “All of us are part of the problem; we can all be part of the solution.”

When asked if businesses were offered the same deal, Ortiz replied that businesses could reduce their fees by adopting the same measures, but without the education component. That is, business employers weren’t required to instruct their patrons and personnel about eco-friendly practices, as the churches were. 

True to his side of the agreement, the Rev. Thomas preached an environmental sermon last month, admitting in his introduction that he was probably not going to get a lot of “amens.” He knew his parishioners had more pressing concerns that morning, but “the question is,” he asked, “are we taking care of what God has blessed us with?” As he warmed to the topic, so did his congregation, and his final points were showered with amens.

In the WBAL interview Ortiz blandly reminded the station’s listeners that the policy was voluntary—churches could “opt in” as they pleased, and to date, 30 churches have done so. He did not mention that without the tax there would be no need to opt in or out. He also insisted that the county’s purpose was not to collect fees but to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, it’s OK to manipulate church policy for a good cause.

But the good-cause justification is even more insidious than taxing for general revenue. Straightforward taxes interfere with church functions, but manipulative taxes interfere with the church’s message. It’s more than a little creepy that governments officially recognize a church’s capacity to instruct and influence, and are willing to take advantage of that. It’s also disconcerting that the Rev. Thomas and others don’t seem to have a problem with being used. This example shows precisely why churches should remain tax-exempt. What the government takes away it can give back, but only with strings attached.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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