The topic of discussion for this Constitution Monday concerns religious freedom. A local government in Texas violated the Constitution when it charged taxes that were disguised as fees, according to claims in a new lawsuit. According to Lucy Gilbert, Grace Community Church in The Woodlands, Texas, is suing the local government with a claim of “illegal excessive” fees charged to install a water tap.
The Church claims that the fees violate both the U.S. Constitution and the State of Texas’s religious freedom law. The lawsuit was filed against Southern Montgomery County Municipal Utility District on Wednesday by First Liberty Institute and King & Spalding LLP. First Liberty is a legal organization whose focus is on religious liberty, and King & Spalding is an international law firm.
The county’s water tap fee scheme is a thinly veiled illegal property tax on Grace Community Church,” Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, told The Daily Signal in an emailed statement Thursday. “Local governments like Montgomery County, in search of new revenue, are illegally targeting churches and other non-profits with similar schemes.”
The district initially told the church that labor and materials would cost $24,900 to connect to the water line. Lter, the church asked the district to install the water tap, which the district said would cost $61,500, which is much higher than the actual cost. The church challenged the cost because of its tax-exempt status, at which point the district countered with a tap fee of $147, 938, more than doubling the prior fee. Eventually, the church had no choice but to pay the fees.
“No government agency should impose a ‘fee-in-lieu-of-taxes’ against faith-based entities,” Dys told The Daily Signal. “What we see now is merely an effort to generate revenue by those the State of Texas have protected against taxation because of the tremendous good they do in the community.”
Dys said the church had not heard of any other complaints about the district placing illegal fees on any other entities.