Taking Liberties: Taxing Church Attendance?

Erik Stanley walked up Woodson Road in Mission, Kansas, surveying the church parking lot at St. Pius X Catholic Church. He said the government can tax your life and can tax your death, but they’re not supposed to tax your church.

And that’s exactly what he said is happening in Mission.

“The city of Mission is taxing churches,” he said. “And that’s clearly unconstitutional.”

In August, the small town just north of Kansas City passed the so-called “driveway tax,” a controversial charge, in addition to property taxes, for residents and businesses based on the number of times their driveway is used.

A big box store like Target can pay over $60,000 annually, while residents pay a flat rate of $72 dollars a year.

The purpose of the “Transportation Utility Fee” is to raise money for public works projects in Mission like street construction and road repair.

It’s unpopular among residents, some of whom have put up protest signs on their yards.

But it’s particularly controversial because the town has included churches in the program.

The Baptist church for instance has to pay 900 dollars a year, while the more popular St. Pius is charged $1700 a year.

Stanley, who is an attorney for the Alliance Defense Fund, a national organization that protects religious rights, is now representing the two churches in a lawsuit against Mission.

He calls the revenue program “a tax on church attendance.”

“The city of mission is taxing churches based on the number of people that come in and out of their driveway, the number of people that come to church,” he said.

Mission’s Mayor Laura McConwell, who has overseen the proposal and implementation of the program disagrees.

“This is not a tax,” She said in a telephone interview. “This is a fee.”

Mission has maintained the town is simply charging a “fee for service. ” City officials say they charge similar fees for water and electricity.

“That is clever,” said Stanley. “But it’s not going to work.”

He says the charge is clearly a property tax issue, and he says any judge will see it that way.
“This is not a fee for service,” he said. “This is a tax.”