By Guy Page
A Williston church is pushing back against a bill requiring churches to certify they have not been politically active in order to maintain their tax-exempt status.
Rev. Todd Callahan, pastor of Ignite Church, says 400 emails already have been sent to lawmakers, using an online link created by the church’s attorney.
H113, introduced Jan. 26 by two southern Vermont lawmakers (both political Independents) and now in the House Ways & Means committee, would “clarify that churches and other public, pious, or charitable organizations are not eligible for the State property tax exemption if those organizations engage in any lobbying or other political activity on their property.”
The bill, however, does more than just re-state existing tax law. It adds a responsibility of annually reporting compliance. The lead sponsor said she introduced the bill after noticing that many more churches seemed to be involved in political and lobbying activity this past election year, VDC reported February 6.
In the language of the bill, churches and other non-profits would be required to certify annually to the Vermont Department of Taxes that the organization does not conduct any lobbying or political activity on the property that would disqualify the organization from the exemption.
“We need to remember that all Vermonters, of all political persuasions are picking up the property tax payments being exempted by these community service organizations. There is no room for partisan political activity to be supported in these establishments if they are asking all Vermonters to support their organization,” co-sponsor Rep. Laura Sibilia testified before Ways & Means last month.
Callahan, who declined to stop meeting in-person during the pandemic despite being under pressure from the State of Vermont, took action when he learned about H113.
“I wanted to share a link with you that our constitutional attorney created for us and as of Monday almost 400 emails had been sent from our church to the Vermont legislators pushing back on this bill,” Callahan wrote to VDC February 7. “As of now the bill is at “no vote” status, however it can come back up at another time, so we need to make sure our voices are heard.
Once the link is selected, individuals can put in their personal email and once they click on “Click Here to Create an Email” it will auto-populate every legislator’s email, Callahan said. “All they have to do is hit ‘send’.”
Authors can write whatever they want in the body of the email. However, a suggested email makes the following points:
- the United States Supreme Court has long supported charitable organizations’ rights, including those of churches, to engage in a certain degree of political speech, as reflected in the IRS code. H.113 violates that standard by penalizing any and all political speech of these charitable organizations.
- If passed, H.113 will violate the rights of certain non-profits and possibly cost the taxpayers of Vermont millions in legal fees only to see this law overturned.