New Church-State Storm in Colorado

Looking at a map, it's obvious that warm, volatile masses of religiosity rolling out of the Bible Belt will sooner or later hit the icy, skeptical air of the wide-open West.

The fronts often collide near Colorado Springs -- home base for dozens of national and international Christian ministries -- creating awesome church-state storms.

"I think of it more in terms of tectonic plates," said State Treasurer Bill Owens. "It's like Colorado's where these two great forces come together and the earth starts buckling and shifting. ... Obviously, they've hit critical mass down in Colorado Springs."

So pick a metaphor -- any metaphor. The key issue is whether Colorado is a sign of what's to come elsewhere.

The next battle is the Nov. 5 vote on Amendment 11, which would give Colorado the nation's first state constitution requiring most religious institutions and other non-profit groups to pay property taxes.

"People say the vote's too close to call," said John Patrick Michael Murphy, a radio talk show host, attorney, Colorado Springs iconoclast and mastermind of Amendment 11. "Personally, I think we're going to flip this thing over like a flapjack."

One Murphy manifesto says that since non-profit groups use "police and fire protection, they should pay taxes to support these services along with schools. ... If this proposal passes, taxpayers can then contribute the extra money from their decreased tax bills ... to the church or non-profit of their choice. It would be their choice, not the government's!"

Supporters argue that, in terms of dollar values, religious groups own 80 percent of Colorado's tax-exempt property. They say Amendment 11 would raise about $70 million.

Opponents note this is only 3 percent of Colorado's annual property-tax revenue. Also, complexities in state laws may funnel the savings to commercial property owners, while resulting cuts in non-profit social services could force residential-tax increases.

Recent polls suggest the amendment will fail, said Owens. Still, this new church-state showdown raises crucial issues.

"Right now, anyone who knows anything about what's going on knows that government officials are having to ask churches and non- profits to step up and take a larger role in social issues," he said. If Amendment 11 passed, and inspired others to use the same strategy, "we'd be sending precisely the wrong signal. If you tax something, you get less of it. ... We need churches and community groups to do more, not less."

On one level, this isn't just a fight over religion. By threatening the wallets of both secular non-profit groups and religious groups, Amendment 11 created one of the most bizarre coalitions in recent American history. The opponents literally range from Planned Parenthood to Focus on the Family.

Still, it's impossible to gloss over the church-state implications. Supporters insist that making churches pay property taxes will promote the separation of church and state. However, Amendment 11 clearly attempts to reward some religious activities while taxing others. It would allow exemptions for property owned by some non-profit institutions, such as schools, orphanages and facilities to help the elderly, abused, homeless and disabled.

While this sounds good, the result would be to hopelessly ensnare the state in religious affairs, said Joseph Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Colorado would be saying that some forms of religion are good for the community, and thus worthy of tax exemptions, while other forms are not as good for the community, and thus deserve to be taxed.

"This is a fatal flaw and reflects a basic misunderstanding of the law," said Conn. "Think about it: this would allow religious schools to be tax-exempt, but not the actual buildings in which people worship, while the whole point of religious schools is to support what's being taught in those churches. What kind of sense does that make? ...

"We can't allow the government to get tangled up in religion like that. The state has no right to tell us what is good religion and what is bad religion."