Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Thirsty for more public revenue

Religious Liberty | Texas churches battle city over extra water charges
by Lynde Langdon
Posted 3/17/20, 04:42 pm

When Magnolia, Texas, decided in 2018 to raise its water rates, everyone in the small town felt the pinch. But the increase squeezed churches even more because the city levied additional fees on nonprofit groups, schools, and places of worship.

To cover its bigger water bills, First Baptist Church in Magnolia cut funding to its free Christian counseling ministry by about $13,200. Church officials say the extra water fee significantly burdens their free exercise of religion. On top of that, city officials carried out a series of legal maneuvers to undercut the church’s ability to defend its rights in court.

With the help of lawyers from First Liberty, First Baptist and two other congregations, Magnolia Bible Church and Believers Fellowship, convinced a judge to reinstate their rights and let them sue the city for hitting them with extra taxes when they are supposed to be tax-exempt. A Texas appellate court is now weighing whether the city can get away with the double assault on the churches’ freedom of religion and right to due process.

Magnolia used to be a sleepy sawmill town in Montgomery County in East Texas. But as the urban sprawl of Houston crept closer and closer, the county became one of the fastest-growing in the country.

The city of Magnolia struggled to keep up with the cost of providing water service to new developments. In late 2017, officials began planning the first major increase to water rates in more than a decade. The proposal included a higher base rate and increased usage rates per 1,000 gallons for what the city considered institutional/nonprofit/tax-exempt customers. The new rates for the churches were up to 57 percent higher than those of normal commercial entities.

The city claims that the water rate hikes had a minimal effect on the churches’ ability to carry out their ministry. Magnolia also argues that because churches use more water than other homes or businesses in town, it is justified in charging them a higher rate.

The churches say the city is unfairly and illegally punishing them for not paying property taxes, from which they are exempt, according to state law.

“For as long as there have been tax exemptions, governmental bodies have sought to evade those exemptions by simply relabeling a tax as something else,” the churches say in their lawsuit.

After adopting the new water rates, the Magnolia City Council went to Austin, the state capital, and asked a judge there to approve it. The judge issued an order that effectively preempted the churches from challenging the rates in court. None of the churches knew what the city was doing in Austin, so they did not have an opportunity to contest it.

“The churches attended multiple public hearings, sent letters, sought a legislative fix, and even provided written notice that they were going to sue,” said Jeremy Dys, special counsel for First Liberty. “And, still, city leaders denied these churches a fair opportunity to challenge the water fee scheme by seeking approval from a court several hours away.”

A judge later reversed the decision and said the churches have a right to sue. The city has asked an appeals court to uphold the legal blockade it tried to erect. Both sides gave oral arguments in front of the Texas 3rd District Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

“The city’s approach would mean that these weighty constitutional challenges would never be considered by any court,” lawyers said in the churches’ appellate brief.And it would create a roadmap for other cities to enact unlawful rates without judicial consideration.”

Facebook/Shawnee State University Facebook/Shawnee State University The Shawnee State University campus in Ohio

Pronoun punishment

A philosophy professor appealed a federal judge’s dismissal of his case against the Ohio university that disciplined him for answering a student’s question with, “Yes, sir.”

Shawnee State University professor Nicholas Meriwether argues that referring to the male student using the student’s requested feminine pronouns would violate Meriwether’s religious beliefs. He sued the school for disciplining him over the pronoun issue. U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott said the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not protect Meriwether’s classroom speech since it was part of his employment. Dlott also agreed with a magistrate judge who found the university’s requirement that teachers address students by their preferred pronouns “cannot reasonably be construed as having conveyed any beliefs or stated any facts about gender identity.”

But Meriwether said that requiring him to use feminine pronouns for a male student infringes on his religious beliefs and his academic freedom.

“Philosophy especially—but certainly higher education in general—is all about the free exchange of ideas, but this exchange cannot happen unless faculty and students are in fact free to share their views,” Meriwether told The Hill.

The professor continues to teach at the university, but it has threatened him with “further corrective action,” including possible firing or suspension without pay, said Tyson Langhofer, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents Meriwether. No students have asked him to refer to them by a pronoun different than their biological sex since the January 2018 incident that led to the lawsuit. —S.W.

Facebook/MumFest Facebook/MumFest Attendees at the MumFest in New Bern, N.C.

Keep mum at the MumFest

A federal judge in North Carolina had a message for two street evangelists last week: Pipe down and don’t be a nuisance.

Patrick O’Connell and Jason Crowley tried to carry a 9-foot cross into MumFest, an annual fall festival in downtown New Bern, N.C. They attended the street festival in 2015 and 2017, but town police blocked them from using a megaphone or carrying the cross through the streets. Officers cited a city ordinance limiting sound amplification to 100 feet and hand-held signs to 40 inches in length.

U.S. District Judge Louise Flanagan ruled last week that the ordinance reasonably restricted the time, place, and manner of free speech based on public safety. But Flanagan allowed the evangelists to sue an officer who moved them to the sidewalk and placed a beeping firetruck and utility cart between them and festival attendees. —S.W.

iStock.com/miroslav_1 iStock.com/miroslav_1 Millennium Park in Chicago, Ill.

Chicago yields to evangelists

Wheaton College student evangelists returned to preach at Chicago’s Millennium Park on Feb. 21 for the first time in more than a year.

The four student evangelists sued the city for shutting them out of most of the park. An ordinance divided the park into separate “rooms” and limited expressive activity to just one. On Feb. 20, a federal judge found the park’s rules unconstitutional. The city agreed on March 4 not to appeal and to rewrite the offending rules.

“This is a win, not only for our evangelists who want to share the message of new life through Jesus but also for people of all religions and political persuasions who want to share their message with the 20 million annual visitors to Millennium Park,” attorney John Mauck said. —S.W.

Lynde Langdon

Lynde is a WORLD Digital’s managing editor and reports on popular and fine arts. She lives in Wichita, Kan., with her husband and two daughters. Follow Lynde on Twitter @lmlangdon.

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