A Very Taxing Problem by Catherine Fahringer (April 1994)

In 1989 a jury decided that a $2 million parking lot owned by First Baptist Church in San Antonio should be exempt from property taxes. This four-day trial of First Baptist Church’s suit against the Bexar (County) Appraisal District (B.A.D.) was another step in a case that had been in the courts for five years.

It is bad enough that a church parking lot should be tax exempt at all, but this particular parking lot is leased out on weekdays to the Valero Energy Corporation which pays the church a handsome $111,000 a year!

I had been following the various struggles of churches vs. tax-man for some time, and had great admiration for Walter Stoneham, the chief appraiser at B.A.D., because he had been trying to tidy up some sloppy records and disparities in property evaluations. The churches came under his scrutiny and never has there been such wailing and gnashing of teeth by local clergy. With the parking lot war still going on in the background, B.A.D. decided to place a ball field owned by Baptist Temple on the tax rolls. The newspaper headlines heralded a “Holy war,” and quoted men of the cloth as saying they would wage a “crusade.” To convince B.A.D. that the ball park contributed to worship, a seventh-grader was quoted, “We come out here and play a lot, sometimes with people who aren’t members of the church. We play with them and share Jesus Christ with them.” Oh, neato!

There was a battle with a Catholic college over the home of its president which the church maintained should be tax exempt. The fact that a good mile or two separated the house from the college, and that the house was in one of San Antonio’s more affluent neighborhoods, did not deter those Catholic hands from reaching into the taxpayers’ pockets. This time that hand got slapped by B.A.D.

I lost track of the parking lot struggle until March 7th, when WOAI radio called to tell me that the Supreme Court had just decided to let First Baptist Church keep a property tax-exemption for their parking lots. I was invited to speak on the subject the next morning with Ron Aaron the drive-time host, our one voice of sanity in this crazy community. The news about the decision depressed me so much that I didn’t ask for details; I just accepted the invitation. I figured the morning paper would feed me the particulars, which it did, but what a stunner! It wasn’t the Texas Supreme Court, it was the United States Supreme Court! It had, without comment, rejected the argument of Bexar County officials that a state law unconstitutionally gives churches a tax exemption that isn’t granted to secular charities. What a low blow!

There are four or five other churches that rent out parking lots which have up to now been on the tax rolls. The last paragraph of the newspaper article informed me that St. John’s Lutheran Church will seek an exemption for its downtown parking lots, including spaces leased to a parking lot business.

And this, my friends, is only the beginning. –Catherine Fahringer

Freedom From Religion Foundation