NEW YORK (Nov. 2)
The National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs announced today that it had filed a “friend of the court” brief in a suit before the United States Supreme Court which contends that exemption from real estate taxes for religious institutions violates the Constitution’s church-state separation principle. Julius Berman COLPA president, said his brief had been filed on behalf of COLPA and nine other national Jewish organizations. The brief argues that “tax exemption for property owned by religious corporations and associations in constitutionally mandatory.” Several Jewish organizations have filed similar briefs.
The suit before the Supreme Court, which Mr. Berman said was considered one of the most important church-state tests to come before the court in this decade, was brought by Frederick Walz, a New York taxpayer. He sued the New York City Tax Commission, claiming that tax exemption he was attacking violated the First Amendment. Mr. Berman said that the COLPA brief declares that New York’s constitutional and statutory taxing provisions “do not grant a unique or peculiar tax status to religious corporations vis-a-vis other charities which are not religious by nature. They simply assign property owned by religious organizations precisely the same tax status as that enjoyed by secular non-profit charitable and educational institutions.”
He added that the COLPA brief contends that “a denial of tax exemption on account of the religious nature of the claimant organization would violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. If tax exemption were denied to synagogue and church property while being retained for buildings operated for ‘scientific, literary, bar association, library, patriotic (and) historical’ purposes or for non-religious ‘charitable’ and ‘benevolent’ purposes (including those devoted to ‘moral or mental improvement of men and women’), it would only be because of the religious nature of the owning organization and the religious purpose for which the building is to be used. Such a singling out of religious activity and property necessary for the exercise of religion would….be impermissibly discriminatory.”
The nine organizations joining in the COLPA brief were listed as the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada, Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Poalei Agudath Israel of America, Rabbinical Alliance of America, Rabbinical Council of America, Religious Zionists of America, Torah Umesorah–the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools, and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Mr. Berman expressed the gratitude of the Orthodox Jewish community to Nathan Lewin, a COLPA vice-president and former deputy assistant attorney in the Justice Department, for action as special counsel to COLPA for the brief.