By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
FRANKLIN — The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board announced plans Sept. 2 to join an amicus (a strong interest in the case but not a party to the case, commonly referred to as “friend of the court”) brief in a certiorari (request to review a lower court decision) filed before the Supreme Court of the United States in the case of “New Life in Christ Church v. City of Fredericksburg, Virginia.”
“The Tennessee Baptist Mission Board was approached about joining the amicus brief by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF),” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB.
According to attorney Ryan Tucker of ADF, the case “involves denial of a tax exemption for parsonage housing and issues related to church autonomy.”
The case involves “church staff who live in and conduct their college ministry from the house on church property,” Tucker explained in a letter provided by Davis.
“The church explained to local officials that the couple were ‘ministers’ under the Presbyterian Church because they were hired to teach and spread the faith to college students in the community. And the city agreed that their eligibility for the exemption turned on whether the church considered them ministers. But the city denied a tax exemption because, under its reading of the denomination’s constitution, only ordained persons with specific duties were ministers of that church. The church lost at the lower court and the Virginia Supreme Court refused to hear it so they are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case,” Tucker wrote.
Tucker added that “one question of particular relevance is whether the local officials violated the First Amendment when they made their own interpretation of church doctrine that overruled the church’s determination.
“And, to assist with highlighting those issues, our current plan is to partner with another firm and file a brief in support of this church,” he said.
Davis said that TBMB legal counsel James Gunther, reviewed the case and requested the TBMB join the amicus brief. According to Guenther, “I reviewed the petition for certiorari filed by the church and other pleadings and decisions in the courts below, and I think signing on as an amicus in this case is a worthy thing. We make the same arguments on behalf of Southern Baptist clients, citing the same cases. The church makes a reasonable argument.”’
The amicus brief was joined by the ERLC, South Carolina Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as well as the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.
“This is definitely a case that infringes upon religious liberty and could have serious tax-exempt status consequences for our churches,” he said. B&R