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Taxing the Church Sanctuaries

Los Angeles County Assessor John J. Lynch is seeking legal advice from the state attorney general and the county counsel before proceeding with his plan to deny property-tax exemptions for churches that offer sanctuary to undocumented aliens regarded as refugees. Better that than rushing headlong into what seems to us a flawed plan.

Lynch’s action against the churches was supported by a legal opinion written by a tax counsel on the staff of the State Board of Equalization. The opinion apparently had not been reviewed by the counsel’s department head, and was promptly disowned by a majority of the members of the Board of Equalization as inconsistent with “recent board actions.”

There is, in the law and in precedents, much to confound an assessor, notably when it comes to making distinctions among such categories of eligibility for tax exemptions as church use, religious use and welfare use, including charitable purposes. A second issue, that of allegedly illegal activity as a ground for denying an exemption, has also been raised by Lynch.

The county assessor figures that about $14 billion worth of churches, schools, hospitals and other charitable institutions are exempt from property taxes in Los Angeles County and that the loss from churches alone is probably close to $20 million a year. No one knows what fraction of the church exemption would be affected were he successful in denying it to sanctuary churches. But clearly it would be small.

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We do not share his enthusiasm for taking on the sanctuary movement. The lawyer’s letter on which he has relied indicates the complexity of law that in itself suggests that any contest would open the gates to prolonged litigation. At best, it seems to us, he is likely to spend more on legal fees than he could ever reclaim in taxes.

The churches engaged in the sanctuary movement argue persuasively that they are respecting U.S. treaty obligations to refugees--an issue that is still making its way through the courts. They argue further that what they are doing is the essence of a religious response as they understand it, and we would think that judgment better left to them than to the assessor. Ultimately the Supreme Court might challenge the sanctuary function itself, but in that event the effect would be minimal because that is but one of many religious functions of the churches that have declared themselves sanctuaries.

Lynch, in his zeal to collect more tax dollars, appears to be invading a constitutionally protected area of rights. This is not an issue of profit from the commercial abuse of a privilege. This is an affirmation of the First Amendment that should not be subjected to the chill breath of an over-eager tax collector. We trust that the new legal opinions that Lynch has sought will confirm that.


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