Debates over the separation of church and state are as old as the formation of the United States. However, it has rarely if ever risen to the level of being the center stage topic in the city of East St. Louis, Illinois. Still, the largely African-American city on the banks of the Mississippi is the scene of a fierce discussion of both the role of government in the life of churches and the definition of a tax.
At issue is a new ordinance requiring safety inspections for businesses and other entities within East St. Louis. Under the new law, the city charges a $100 “annual registration fee” that applies to a wide variety of establishments, including churches.
A number of pastors have complained, saying that the “fee” is nothing more than a tax and that their churches should be exempt from paying because of the separation of church and state. Until recently, the inspections were done by the city without charge to the churches. However, officials of cash-strapped East St. Louis said they now needed to charge for the service.
Furthermore, the pastors argue, their churches provide the citizens of East St. Louis with a number of services that allow the city to save tax money that would have been used to provide those programs and amenities.
One pastor, the Rev. Jerome Rogers of the Shining Light Missionary Baptist Church, said that congregations in East St. Louis provide courses in computer literacy and employment-finding services while engaging in programs to clean up abandoned and run down properties in the city.
Still, Alvin Parks Jr., the mayor of East St. Louis, said that registration was not a tax but an avenue for the city to ensure the health and safety of its citizens by calling for an inspection of churches by someone licensed to conduct the work.
“The most important consideration for us is to make sure that the structures in this city are safe for the people of East St. Louis,” Parks said, in an interview with BET.com. “We’re calling for a certified inspection of the churches, the same way we call for them in all other buildings in East St. Louis.”
The pastors contend that they were caught by surprise by the imposition of the fee, saying that they recently received letters from the city stating that their churches would be subject to action by collection agencies for failure to pay.
Parks said that the city was not trying to be harsh in dealing with the churches, but to ensure that the buildings are properly inspected. He said the city was willing to allow the churches to conduct their own inspections, so long as they are conducted by a certified inspector.
“We are willing to give the churches the choice,” Parks said. “But it would be easier for them to simply pay the $100 and have the city do it.”
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(Photo: Lawren / Getty Images)