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November 21, 2014

The Government Takes Over The Pulpit

Joe Charlebois

Controlling religious speech seems to be on the agenda of more than just Houston’s Mayor Annise Parker these days. In nearby Prince George’s County, the county’s environmental director Adam Ortiz has been given approval to waive a majority of the “rain tax” fees that churches are required to pay if they only deliver “green sermons.”


Maryland’s “rain tax” is a fee imposed on all property owners based on the square footage of impermeable surfaces on their property. Based on the 2010 EPA edict that treats storm water as a pollutant, Maryland’s General Assembly passed – and Gov. Martin O’Malley signed – this bill into law in 2010.


The law is intended to collect fees to mitigate the potential damage to the Chesapeake Bay due to storm water runoff. As buildings, roads and parking lots don’t allow for the direct absorption of rain water into the ground, a majority of rain water turns into runoff. This water often carries with it many more pollutants than would typically be carried into the streams and rivers surrounding the Chesapeake Bay. The “rain tax” was instituted to fund environmental initiatives to combat pollution affecting the Bay.


When the bill was originally passed there was an effort to exempt churches and other tax-exempt religious institutions from paying the fees, but this attempt failed to pass. Those legislators who killed the religious exemption realized that church properties are often large buildings with large parking lots. In other words, some of the worst offenders.


Houston’s Mayor Parker had subpoenas issued to five clergymen, who opposed a rule banning discrimination against gays and lesbians, to force them to provide copies of their sermons to the city. After a firestorm of protests, she withdrew the subpoenas.


Currently in an attempt to minimize the impact of the “rain tax” on its religious institutions, Prince George’s County officials have decided to offer drastically reduced fees if the church alters its sermons to preach a “green” message. In a Washington Post interview, Mr. Ortiz states that the average religious institution pays $744 in fees to Prince George’s County in accordance with Maryland’s “rain tax.” Mr. Ortiz states that dozens of Prince George’s religious leaders have showed interest this “green” initiative.


Along with creating “green” ministries and preaching environmental messages from the pulpit comes environmentally friendly construction to minimize the runoff on church properties. According to the same Washington Post piece, the Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church in District Heights alone will receive $73,000 in county funds to modify the grounds with rain focused landscaping to meet the government’s goals.


I’m certain that many will argue that this is good policy. The county is promoting a message of conservation and those in the religious communities will benefit.


However, the largest payers of the “rain tax” will now be exempt; they will be offered financial incentives in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to alter their properties. As a result the remaining county residents will be left to pay for their modifications and to cover the lost revenue that the fees would have produced.


The most important aspect of this story is the fact that the government is instituting a policy that will reward those that alter their sermons that toe the government line and effectively punish those that don’t.


And here I thought that government wasn’t to interfere with religious speech.


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