The Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and two Anchorage residents are trying to stop a bill that would allow property tax exemptions on housing for teachers of religious schools.
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Alaska already gives tax breaks on property used exclusively for religious purposes and housing for clergy. House Bill 334 extends the exemption to homes owned by churches and synagogues for teachers employed at their schools.
"Both the U.S. and Alaska Constitutions bar the government from showing favoritism for one religion over another - or for religion generally over non-religion," said Michael Macleod-Ball, the ACLU of Alaska's executive director.
If the bill included tax exemptions for employees of other nonprofits and charitable groups, the ACLU would not oppose it, Macleod-Ball said.
On Monday, the ACLU, along with Anchorage residents Ray Metcalfe and Keith Coonrod, filed a request in the Anchorage Superior Court to prevent the law from taking effect.
"The ACLU is certainly against anything that supports Christians," said House Majority Leader John Coghill, R-North Pole.
Prior to the bill's introduction, the Anchorage Baptist Temple and the municipality of Anchorage were at odds over the city taxing six homes the church owns to lodge teachers.
The church runs a school for 700 students in prekindergarten to 12th grade. Some teachers moving to Alaska to teach in the school live in the duplexes owned by the church, said the Rev. Glenn Clary, a pastor there.
In response to the ACLU's motion, Clary said this lawsuit is a continued example of harassment against religious nonprofits.
"This should serve as a call to all religious organizations to rally together for the preservation of religious freedoms," he wrote.
Clary said his church enjoyed the tax exemption until three years ago when a handful of residents informed the city that the tax break may be illegal.
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The city took the tax exemption away, saying state law was ambiguous about teachers. City officials told the church leadersthey would reinstate the tax break when the church proves the state law includes exemptions for teachers, Clary said. Alaska Pacific University enjoys tax-exempt housing for their teachers, as do nuns who teach in private schools, he said.
The idea to settle this dispute with a bill came in the middle of this year's legislative session. Sen. Ben Stevens, R-Anchorage, added the provision to a bill providing optional deferral of municipal property taxes for primary residences.
Uneasiness with the new provision from a number of Senators, including the original bills sponsor, Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, caused it to die in a committee. Subsequently the tax break was added by Sen. Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, to a House bill that provided property tax breaks for low-income households.
The new bill passed in the House 26-13, with Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau and Rep. Bruce Weyhrauch, R-Juneau, voting against it, and in the Senate 14-6, with Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, opposing.
Supporters in the Legislature justified the tax exemption by saying churches and synagogues help build healthy communities and their schools save local districts money.
Those voting against it did not take issue with providing property-tax exemptions to religious organizations, but did not want to extend the benefit beyond members of the clergy, calling it unfair to taxpayers.
Given that testimony in committees argued the bill would favor only one institution in Alaska, Macleod-Ball said this is a case of governmental favoritism. Metcalfe said the bill appeared to be a favor for a church made up of Republicans, who contribute to campaigns.
Clary, one of the pastors at Anchorage Baptist Temple, is the treasurer of the state Republican Party and the church's head pastor Jerry Prevo helped spearhead the "moral majority" movement in the 1980s.
"The clarification of the statute is not special interest legislation," said Clary, adding that Democrats also voted for the bill.
Rep. Eric Croft, D-Anchorage, said he voted for the bill because he was the original sponsor and wanted to see legislation passed that included relief on property taxes for the poor.
Croft is drafting a ballot initiative that would reform certain property tax laws in the state and will include language that will give municipalities the option to give breaks for teachers working in religious schools.
Senate Minority Leader Johnny Ellis, D-Anchorage, said he received more e-mails and phone calls from constituents about property taxes than the session's most dominant bill, the oil tax.
Ellis voted against the bill because he was told by his constituents the tax break to the Anchorage Baptist Temple was excessive, while others were not getting the same deal.
City assessor Jim Canary said no churches in Juneau would take advantage of the bill, because they do not own homes for teachers of their schools. He also had heard about the Anchorage Baptist Temple's involvement in the bill.
"I was honestly shocked that it passed," he said.
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