New Life in Christ Church is a Presbyterian Church that has served the Fredericksburg community for over forty years. Fredericksburg is the home of both the University of Mary Washington and Germanna Community College. Recognizing that college is a pivotal time for people’s faith and the development of worldview, NLICC started a college ministry to “reach a diverse group of students for Christ and equip them to love and serve Jesus and His church.”
Virginia is often recognized as the birthplace of religious freedom in America. James Madison, the architect of the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses, was a Virginian, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom served as precursor for the U.S. Constitution’s religious protections. To help protect this religious freedom, both the Virginia constitution and Virginia law allow churches and religious bodies to exempt ministerial residences from property tax.
NLICC purchased a home in Fredericksburg that serves as the residence of its college ministers, as well as the base of the church’s college ministry there. When NLICC applied for the tax exemption for ministerial residences, the City denied the exemption. NLICC challenged this denial in state court. In court, the City argued that the college ministers are not ministers pursuant to the Presbyterian Book of Church Order. The Church disagreed with the City’s interpretation of its governing documents. Despite clear Virginia precedent that courts are not free to interpret church doctrine, the trial court sided with the City and denied the exemption.
The Center for Law & Religious Freedom is representing NLICC in its appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Center filed a petition for appeal on September 21, 2020. In its request for review to the Supreme Court of Virginia, the Center argued that the trial court erred when it accepted arguments from the city that college ministers are not ministers under the Presbyterian Book of Church Order. Indeed, under neutral principles of law set forth by the United States Supreme Court, ministers are determined by whether they do religious work. In court, the city conceded that the college ministers do important religious work.
On February 16, 2021, the Center’s Director of Litigation, Reed Smith, appeared before a panel of the Virginia Supreme Court to urge that it accept the church’s appeal to be heard by the full court. Despite a strong argument, the Virginia Supreme Court issued an order in which it denied the church's petition to appeal.
On August 2, 2021, First Liberty Counsel, Christian Legal Society, and the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLC filed a petition for certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. One of the issues presented is whether a civil court may substitute its own interpretation of church doctrine for that of church officials. The city filed its brief in opposition on September 3, and the church filed its reply on September 22. The Court is scheduled to conference the case on October 8.
What principle is the Center fighting for? Government officials and courts should never be able to tell religious congregations that they have misinterpreted their religious doctrine. CLS is fighting for the right of churches in Virginia and everywhere to be the final authority on their own doctrine.