WASHINGTON (BP)–An estimated 750 churchgoers assembled at the Indianapolis Baptist Temple Jan. 17 to protest a U.S. Supreme Court decision to let stand a ruling obliging the church to pay $6 million in back taxes on employee paychecks and fines, CNSNews.com reported Jan. 18.
The protesters said they feared a raid by federal marshals to seize the property was imminent.
Gregory A. Dixon, the church’s senior pastor, said a Jan. 12 Supreme Court ruling meant “the death of religious liberty,” CNSNews.com reported, while his father, the Gregory J. Dixon, said the courts were corrupt.
Without comment, the court refused to accept the church’s argument that its religious freedom exonerates it from having to withhold Social Security, Medicare and income taxes for its workers. The church owes about $6 million in back taxes and penalties and has faced seizure by federal marshals since Nov. 14.
The threat of foreclosure brought supporters to the church in droves for a noon rally Jan. 17, a spokeswoman told CNSNews.com.
“We’re having a rally to mourn the death of Christian liberty and freedom here in America,” said a spokeswoman, who estimated more than 750 people had turned out to make a peaceful protest.
The spokeswoman took issue with the court for declining to hear the church’s case while agreeing to hear the case of Casey Martin, a disabled professional golfer who sued the PGA Tour after officials refused to allow him to ride in a golf cart in major tournaments. This was an example of the court’s confused priorities, she said.
“But this church is going on, even though they may come and seize the building. The more people that are here, the less likely the marshals are to come in,” she told CNSNews.com.
Refusal by the court to hear the case ends the church’s hopes for a favorable legal outcome and clears the way for enactment of a September ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker ordering the conservative evangelicals to vacate the church so that the building can be sold at auction.
The eviction order came after the church lost its appeals in a lawsuit brought by the government seeking foreclosure to pay the tax debt.
Churches are generally tax-exempt, but they are required by federal law to withhold income tax from their employees’ payroll checks, and to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for each employee.
But the Indianapolis Baptist Temple has refused to do so since 1983, when the elder Dixon decided the church would break all ties with the government and no longer act as its agent in withholding taxes.
The church has maintained that church workers are ministers, not employees, and they paid their taxes as individuals. Dixon based his legal defense on the First Amendment guarantee of free exercise of religion, and that withholding taxes would impose a secular authority over the church.
The court, however, ruled that tax laws are “natural laws” that don’t run afoul of First Amendment protections of the free exercise of religion.
Church spokespersons say church employees have paid their taxes. In addition, they say, the government actually collects more taxes from the Baptist Temple than it would if the church were a tax-free entity. Unlike most churches, the Baptist Temple pays sales tax on all purchases and its members cannot claim income tax deductions for their donations.
Church officials are scrambling to enlist political support to save their church, but sources say action is unlikely before Congress convenes at the end of the month, CNSNews.com reported. Church officials have approached Rep. Ron Paul, a conservative Republican from Texas, among others, who are sympathetic to their cause.
“We agree that it’s more than a tax issue,” Jeff Deist, a spokesman for Paul, told CNSNews.com. “It’s also an issue of government infringement on religious liberty because in our view, once the state gets involved in churches through its tax code, it creates a problem.”
Morahan is a senior staff writer with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.