Several Jewish Organizations Plan to Oppose Supreme Court Appeal on Tax Exemptions

Several national Jewish bodies are making plans to oppose an appeal that will come before the United States Supreme Court next fall that challenges the constitutionality of state laws that exempt church property from real estate taxes, JTA learned today.

The High Court agreed Monday to hear a complaint brought by Frederick Walz of New York City against the City’s Tax Commission. Mr. Walz. a lawyer who is acting as his own attorney and who owns property on Staten Island, claims he is being forced to support churches because their tax exemptions increased his own property taxes.

He attacked the constitutionality of elements of the state constitution and real estate law that exempt church-owned property used exclusively for religious purposes. He claimed that these exemptions violated his rights of religious freedom as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Jewish groups opposing him indicated that they plan to fight the appeal on constitutional grounds.

The Synagogue Council of America, the national coordinating body of the lay and rabbinic arms of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jewry, is considering action. Its president, Rabbi Solomon J. Sharfman, has instructed the issue and to recommend what form its action should take. The six-member committee is headed by Rabbi Mordecai Waxman,

According to Rabbi Henry Siegman, executive vice president, the Council “has been grappling with this issue for some time” as a result of earlier taxpayers’ suits against exemptions for non-religious affiliated church property. Rabbi Siegman said he thought that whatever action is taken should be an expression of the Synagogue Council as a collective entity rather than by its constituent groups as individuals.

Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of Conservative rabbis, told JTA that it normally does not involve itself in such issues and if it did in this case it would be in association with other agencies. But the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform congregational body, may inject itself into the case. Albert Vorspan, director of UAHC’s committee on social action said that while no formal stand has been taken on the Walz case, a position paper on the subject was developed a year ago by the Union’s counsel in anticipation of just such an attack on the tax-exempt status of religious institutions. Mr. Vorspan said that if the paper is adopted, the UAHC would argue that the denial of tax exemption to religious institutions violated the First Amendment which forbids the Government to establish a religion. He said the core of the argument would be that “the power to tax is the power to control.” According to Mr. Vorspan, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the rabbinic wing of Reform Judaism, formally adopted the position paper at its last convention.

The most vehement opposition to the challenge was voiced by Orthodox groups. Rabbi Joseph Karasick, president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, issued a statement claiming that Mr. Walz’ suit represented a “secularist” attack on religious institutions and announced that his group would file a brief of “amicus curiei” (friend of the court) so that its views can be presented to the Supreme Court.

Marvin Schick, president of the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, an Orthodox lay group, told JTA that it would submit a brief based on the First Amendment. Mr. Schick remarked that his organization supported the removal of tax exempt status from non-religious affiliated church property and businesses. He observed that no Jewish denomination that he knows of owns property or business not affiliated with its religious functions. A spokesman for the American Jewish Congress said the organization was “considering what it might do, if anything.” The American Jewish Committee told JTA it had never been involved in such issues and “had no intention” of getting involved.

The Supreme Court is expected to schedule arguments on the Walz appeal next fall or winter and follow with a written opinion. The outcome, according to some observers here, could produce the most far-reaching church-state decision in the Court’s history.

NEXT STORY