|Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York
[ Burger ]
[ Brennan ]
[ Harlan ]
[ Douglas ]
Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York
APPEAL FROM THE COURT OF APPEALS OF THE STATE OF NEW YORK
MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.
Appellant, owner of real estate in Richmond County, New York, sought an injunction in the New York courts to prevent the New York City Tax Commission from granting property tax exemptions to religious organizations for religious properties used solely for religious worship. The exemption from state taxes is authorized by Art. 16, § 1, of the New York Constitution, which provides in relevant part:
Exemptions from taxation may be granted only by general laws. Exemptions may be altered or repealed except those exempting real or personal property used exclusively for religious, educational or [p667] charitable purposes as defined by law and owned by any corporation or association organized or conducted exclusively for one or more of such purposes and not operating for profit. [n1]
The essence of appellant's contention was that the New York City Tax Commission's grant of an exemption to church property indirectly requires the appellant to make a contribution to religious bodies, and thereby violates provisions prohibiting establishment of religion under the First Amendment which, under the Fourteenth Amendment, is binding on the States. [n2]
Appellee's motion for summary judgment was granted, and the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed. We noted probable jurisdiction, 395 U.S. 957 (1969), and affirm.
Prior opinions of this Court have discussed the development and historical background of the First Amendment in detail. See Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1"]330 U.S. 1 (1947); 330 U.S. 1 (1947); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). It would therefore serve no useful purpose to review in detail the background of the Establishment and Free [p668] Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment or to restate what the Court's opinions have reflected over the years.
It is sufficient to note that, for the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the "establishment" of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity. In England, and in some Colonies at the time of the separation in 1776, the Church of England was sponsored and supported by the Crown as a state, or established, church; in other countries, "establishment" meant sponsorship by the sovereign of the Lutheran or Catholic Church. See Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. at 428 n. 10. See generally C. Antieau, A. Downey, & E. Roberts, Freedom from Federal Establishment (1964). The exclusivity of established churches in the 17th and 18th centuries, of course, was often carried to prohibition of other forms of worship. See Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. at 9-11; L. Pfeffer, Church, State and Freedom 71 et seq. (1967).
The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment are not the most precisely drawn portions of the Constitution. The sweep of the absolute prohibitions in the Religion Clauses may have been calculated, but the purpose was to state an objective, not to write a statute. In attempting to articulate the scope of the two Religion Clauses, the Court's opinions reflect the limitations inherent in formulating general principles on a case by-case basis. The considerable internal inconsistency in the opinions of the Court derives from what, in retrospect, may have been too sweeping utterances on aspects of these clauses that seemed clear in relation to the particular cases, but have limited meaning as general principles.
The Court has struggled to find a neutral course between the two Religion Clauses, both of which are cast in absolute terms, and either of which, if expanded to a [p669] logical extreme, would tend to clash with the other. For example, in Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952), MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, writing for the Court, noted:
The First Amendment, however, does not say that, in every and all respects, there shall be a separation of Church and State.
Id. at 312.
We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group, and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma.
Id. at 313.
MR. JUSTICE HARLAN expressed something of this in his dissent in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), saying that the constitutional neutrality imposed on us
is not so narrow a channel that the slightest deviation from an absolutely straight course leads to condemnation.
Id. at 422.
The course of constitutional neutrality in this area cannot be an absolutely straight line; rigidity could well defeat the basic purpose of these provisions, which is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited. The general principle deducible from the First Amendment and all that has been said by the Court is this: that we will not tolerate either governmentally established religion or governmental interference with religion. Short of those expressly proscribed governmental acts, there is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference.
Each value judgment under the Religion Clauses must therefore turn on whether particular acts in question are intended to establish or interfere with religious beliefs and practices or have the effect of doing so. Adherence to the policy of neutrality that derives from an accommodation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses [p670] has prevented the kind of involvement that would tip the balance toward government control of churches or governmental restraint on religious practice.
Adherents of particular faiths and individual churches frequently take strong positions on public issues, including, as this case reveals in the several briefs amici, vigorous advocacy of legal or constitutional positions. Of course, churches, as much as secular bodies and private citizens, have that right. No perfect or absolute separation is really possible; the very existence of the Religion Clauses is an involvement of sorts -- one that seeks to mark boundaries to avoid excessive entanglement.
The hazards of placing too much weight on a few words or phrases of the Court is abundantly illustrated within the pages of the Court's opinion in Everson. MR. JUSTICE BLACK, writing for the Court s majority, said the First Amendment
means at least this: neither a state nor the Federal Government can . . . pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.
330 U.S. at 15. Yet he had no difficulty in holding that:
Measured by these standards, we cannot say that the First Amendment prohibits New Jersey from spending tax raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools. It is undoubtedly true that children are helped to get to church schools. There is even a possibility that some of the children might not be sent to the church schools if the parents were compelled to pay their children's bus fares out of their own pockets. . . .
Id. at 17. (Emphasis added.) [p671]
The Court did not regard such "aid" to schools teaching a particular religious faith as any more a violation of the Establishment Clause than providing "state-paid policemen, detailed to protect children . . . [at the schools] from the very real hazards of traffic. . . ." Ibid.
Mr. Justice Jackson, in perplexed dissent in Everson, noted that
the undertones of the opinion, advocating complete and uncompromising separation . . . seem utterly discordant with its conclusion. . . .
Id. at 19.
Perhaps so. One can sympathize with Mr. Justice Jackson's logical analysis but agree with the Court's eminently sensible and realistic application of the language of the Establishment Clause. In Everson, the Court declined to construe the Religion Clauses with a literalness that would undermine the ultimate constitutional objective as illuminated by history. Surely, bus transportation and police protection to pupils who receive religious instruction "aid" that particular religion to maintain schools that plainly tend to assure future adherents to a particular faith by having control of their total education at an early age. No religious body that maintains schools would deny this as an affirmative, if not dominant, policy of church schools. But if, as in Everson, buses can be provided to carry and policemen to protect church school pupils, we fail to see how a broader range of police and fire protection given equally to all churches, along with nonprofit hospitals, art galleries, and libraries receiving the same tax exemption, is different for purposes of the Religion Clauses.
Similarly, making textbooks available to pupils in parochial schools in common with public schools was surely an "aid" to the sponsoring churches, because it relieved those churches of an enormous aggregate cost [p672] for those books. Supplying of costly teaching materials was not seen either as manifesting a legislative purpose to aid or as having a primary effect of aid contravening the First Amendment. Board of Education v. Allen, 392 U.S. 236 (1968). In so holding, the Court was heeding both its own prior decisions and our religious tradition. MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, in Zorach v. Clauson, supra, after recalling that we "are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being," went on to say:
We make room for as wide a variety of beliefs and creeds as the spiritual needs of man deem necessary. . . . When the state encourages religious instruction . . . it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.
343 U.S. at 313-314. (Emphasis added.)
With all the risks inherent in programs that bring about administrative relationships between public education bodies and church-sponsored schools, we have been able to chart a course that preserved the autonomy and freedom of religious bodies while avoiding any semblance of established religion. This is a "tightrope," and one we have successfully traversed.
The legislative purpose of the property tax exemption is neither the advancement nor the inhibition of religion; it is neither sponsorship nor hostility. New York, in common with the other States, has determined that certain entities that exist in a harmonious relationship to the community at large, and that foster its "moral or mental improvement," should not be inhibited in their activities by property taxation or the hazard of loss of those properties for nonpayment of taxes. It [p673] has not singled out one particular church or religious group, or even churches as such; rather, it has granted exemption to all houses of religious worship within a broad class of property owned by nonprofit, quasi-public corporations which include hospitals, libraries, playgrounds, scientific, professional, historical, and patriotic groups. The State has an affirmative policy that considers these groups as beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life and finds this classification useful, desirable, and in the public interest. Qualification for tax exemption is not perpetual or immutable; some tax exempt groups lose that status when their activities take them outside the classification and new entities can come into being and qualify for exemption.
Governments have not always been tolerant of religious activity, and hostility toward religion has taken many shapes and forms economic, political, and sometimes harshly oppressive. Grants of exemption historically reflect the concern of authors of constitutions and statutes as to the latent dangers inherent in the imposition of property taxes; exemption constitutes a reasonable and balanced attempt to guard against those dangers. The limits of permissible state accommodation to religion are by no means coextensive with the noninterference mandated by the Free Exercise Clause. To equate the two would be to deny a national heritage with roots in the Revolution itself. See Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 423 (1963) (HARLAN, J., dissenting); Braunfeld v. Brown, 366 U.S. 599, 608 (1961). See generally Kauper, The Constitutionality of Tax Exemptions for Religious Activities in The Wall Between Church and State 95 (D. Oaks ed.1963). We cannot read New York's statute as attempting to establish religion; it is simply sparing the exercise of religion from the burden of property taxation levied on private profit institutions. [p674]
We find it unnecessary to justify the tax exemption on the social welfare services or "good works" that some churches perform for parishioners and others -- family counseling, aid to the elderly and the infirm, and to children. Churches vary substantially in the scope of such services; programs expand or contract according to resources and need. As public-sponsored programs enlarge, private aid from the church sector may diminish. The extent of social services may vary, depending on whether the church serves an urban or rural, a rich or poor constituency. To give emphasis to so variable an aspect of the work of religious bodies would introduce an element of governmental evaluation and standards as to the worth of particular social welfare programs, thus producing a kind of continuing day-to-day relationship which the policy of neutrality seeks to minimize. Hence, the use of a social welfare yardstick as a significant element to qualify for tax exemption could conceivably give rise to confrontations that could escalate to constitutional dimensions.
Determining that the legislative purpose of tax exemption is not aimed at establishing, sponsoring, or supporting religion does not end the inquiry, however. We must also be sure that the end result -- the effect -- is not an excessive government entanglement with religion. The test is inescapably one of degree. Either course, taxation of churches or exemption, occasions some degree of involvement with religion. Elimination of exemption would tend to expand the involvement of government by giving rise to tax valuation of church property, tax liens, tax foreclosures, and the direct confrontations and conflicts that follow in the train of those legal processes.
Granting tax exemptions to churches necessarily operates to afford an indirect economic benefit, and also gives rise to some, but yet a lesser, involvement than taxing [p675] them. In analyzing either alternative, the questions are whether the involvement is excessive and whether it is a continuing one calling for official and continuing surveillance leading to an impermissible degree of entanglement. Obviously a direct money subsidy would be a relationship pregnant with involvement and, as with most governmental grant programs, could encompass sustained and detailed administrative relationships for enforcement of statutory or administrative standards, but that is not this case. The hazards of churches supporting government are hardly less in their potential than the hazards of government supporting churches; [n3] each relationship carries some involvement, rather than the desired insulation and separation. We cannot ignore the instances in history when church support of government led to the kind of involvement we seek to avoid.
The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship, since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches, but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state. No one has ever suggested that tax exemption has converted libraries, art galleries, or hospitals into arms of the state or put employees "on the public payroll." There is no genuine nexus between tax exemption and establishment of religion. As Mr. Justice Holmes commented in a related context, "a page of [p676] history is worth a volume of logic." New York Trust Co. v. Eisner, 256 U.S. 345, 349 (1921). The exemption creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, and far less than taxation of churches. It restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other.
Separation in this context cannot mean absence of all contact; the complexities of modern life inevitably produce some contact, and the fire and police protection received by houses of religious worship are no more than incidental benefits accorded all persons or institutions within a State's boundaries, along with many other exempt organizations. The appellant has not established even an arguable quantitative correlation between the payment of an ad valorem property tax and the receipt of these municipal benefits.
All of the 50 States provide for tax exemption of places of worship, most of them doing so by constitutional guarantees. For so long as federal income taxes have had any potential impact on churches -- over 75 years -- religious organizations have been expressly exempt from the tax. [n4] Such treatment is an "aid" to churches no more and no less in principle than the real estate tax exemption granted by States. Few concepts are more deeply embedded in the fabric of our national life, beginning with pre-Revolutionary colonial times, than for the government to exercise at the very least this kind of benevolent neutrality toward churches and religious exercise [p677] generally so long a none was favored over others and none suffered interference.
It is significant that Congress, from its earliest days, has viewed the Religion Clauses of the Constitution as authorizing statutory real estate tax exemption to religious bodies. In 1802, the 7th Congress enacted a taxing statute for the County of Alexandria, adopting the 1800 Virginia statutory pattern which provided tax exemptions for churches. 2 Stat. 194. [n5] As early as 1813, the 12th Congress refunded import duties paid by religious societies on the importation of religious articles. [n6] During this period, the City Council of Washington, D.C., acting under congressional authority, Act of Incorporation, § 7, 2 Stat. 197 (May 3, 1802), enacted a series of real and personal property assessments that uniformly exempted church property. [n7] In 1870, the Congress specifically exempted all churches in the District of Columbia [p678] and appurtenant grounds and property "from any and all taxes or assessments, national, municipal, or county." Act of June 17, 1870, 16 Stat. 153. [n8]
It is obviously correct that no one acquires a vested or protected right in violation of the Constitution by long use, even when that span of time covers our entire national existence, and indeed predates it. Yet an unbroken practice of according the exemption to churches, openly and by affirmative state action, not covertly or by state inaction, is not something to be lightly cast aside. Nearly 50 years ago, Mr. Justice Holmes stated:
If a thing has been practised for two hundred years by common consent, it will need a strong case for the Fourteenth Amendment to affect it. . . .
Jackman v. Rosenbaum Co., 260 U.S. 22, 31 (1922).
Nothing in this national attitude toward religious tolerance and two centuries of uninterrupted freedom from taxation has given the remotest sign of leading to an established church or religion, and, on the contrary, it has operated affirmatively to help guarantee the free exercise of all forms of religious belief. Thus, it is hardly useful to suggest that tax exemption is but the "foot in the door" or the "nose of the camel in the tent" leading to an established church. If tax exemption can be seen as this first step toward "establishment" of religion, as MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS fears, the second step has been long in coming. Any move that realistically "establishes" a church or tends to do so can be dealt with "while this Court sits."
Mr. Justice Cardozo commented in The Nature of the Judicial Process 51 (1921) on the "tendency of a principle [p679] to expand itself to the limit of its logic"; such expansion must always be contained by the historical frame of reference of the principle's purpose, and there is no lack of vigilance on this score by those who fear religious entanglement in government.
The argument that making "fine distinctions" between what is and what is not absolute under the Constitution is to render us a government of men, not laws, gives too little weight to the fact that it is an essential part of adjudication to draw distinctions, including fine ones, in the process of interpreting the Constitution. We must frequently decide, for example, what are "reasonable" searches and seizures under the Fourth Amendment. Determining what acts of government tend to establish or interfere with religion falls well within what courts have long been called upon to do in sensitive areas.
It is interesting to note that, while the precise question we now decide has not been directly before the Court previously, the broad question was discussed by the Court in relation to real estate taxes assessed nearly a century ago on land owned by and adjacent to a church in Washington, D.C. [n9] At that time, Congress granted real estate tax exemptions to buildings devoted to art, to institutions of public charity, libraries, cemeteries, and "church buildings, and grounds actually occupied by such buildings." In denying tax exemption as to land owned by but not used for the church, but rather to produce income, the Court concluded:
In the exercise of this [taxing] power, Congress, like any State legislature unrestricted by constitutional provisions, may, at its discretion, wholly exempt certain classes of property from taxation, or [p680] may tax them at a lower rate than other property.
Gibbons v. District of Columbia 116 U.S. 404, 408 (1886).
It appears that, at least up to 1885, this Court, reflecting more than a century of our history and uninterrupted practice, accepted without discussion the proposition that federal or state grants of tax exemption to churches were not a violation of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. As to the New York statute, we now confirm that view.
1. Art. 16, § 1, of the New York State Constitution is implemented by § 420, subd. 1, of the New York Real Property Tax Law, which states in pertinent part:
Real property owned by a corporation or association organized exclusively for the moral or mental improvement of men and women, or for religious, bible, tract, charitable, benevolent, missionary, hospital, infirmary, educational, public playground, scientific, literary, bar association, medical society, library, patriotic, historical or cemetery purposes . . . and used exclusively for carrying out thereupon one or more of such purposes . . . shall be exempt from taxation as provided in this section.
2. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides in part that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . ."
3. The support of religion with direct allocation of public revenue was a common colonial practice. See C. Antieau, A. Downey, & E. Roberts, Freedom from Federal Establishment cc. 1 and 2 (1964). A general assessment proposed in the Virginia Legislature in 1784 prompted the writing of James Madison's Remonstrance. See opinion of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS dissenting, post at 704-706; 716-727. Governmental support of religion is common in many countries. See e.g., R. Murray, A Brief History of the Church of Sweden 75 (1961); G. Codding, The Federal Government of Switzerland 53-54 (1961); M. Scehic, Zbirka Propisa o Doprinosima i Porezima Gradjana 357 (Yugoslavia) (1968).
4. Act of August 27, 1894, § 32, 28 Stat. 556. Following passage of the Sixteenth Amendment, federal income tax acts have consistently exempted corporations and associations organized and operated exclusively for religious purposes, along with eleemosynary groups, from payment of the tax. Act of Oct. 3, 1913, § IIG(a), 38 Stat. 172. See Int.Rev.Code of 1954, § 501 et seq., 26 U.S.C. § 501 et seq.
5. In 1798, Congress passed an Act to provide for the valuation of lands and dwelling houses. All existing state exemptions were expressly excluded from the aforesaid valuation and enumeration. Act of July 9, 1798, § 8, 1 Stat. 585. Subsequent levies of direct taxes expressly or impliedly incorporated existing state exemptions. Act of July 14, 1798, § 2, 1 Stat. 598 (express incorporation of state exemption). See Act of Aug. 2, 1813, § 4, 3 Stat. 71; Act of Jan. 9, 1815, § 5, 3 Stat. 166 (express incorporation of state exemptions).
6. See 6 Stat. 116 (1813), relating to plates for printing Bibles. See also 6 Stat. 346 (1826) relating to church vestments, furniture, and paintings; 6 Stat. 162 (1816), Bible plates; 6 Stat. 600 (1834), and 6 Stat. 675 (1836), church bells.
7. See, e.g., Acts of the Corporation of the City of Washington, First Council, c. V, approved Oct. 6, 1802, p. 13; Acts of the Corporation of the City of Washington, Second Council, § 1, approved Sept. 12, 1803, p. 13; Acts of the Corporation of the City of Washington, Third Council. § 1, approved Sept. 5, 1804, p. 13. Succeeding Acts of the Corporation impliedly renewed the exemption in subsequent assessments. See, e.g., Acts of the Corporation of the City of Washington, Thirteenth Council, c. 19, § 2, approved July 27, 1815, p.24.
8. Subsequent Acts of Congress carried over the substance of the exemption. Act of July 12, 1876, § 8, 19 Stat. 85; Act of March 3, 1877, § 8, 19 Stat. 399; Act of August 15, 1916, 39 Stat. 514; D.C.Code Ann. § 47-801a (1967).
9. Gibbons v. District of Columbia, 116 U.S. 404 (1886). Cf. Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U.S. App.D.C. 371, 249 F.2d 127 (1957).