The Story Behind Colorado’s Historic “Amendment 11” by John Patrick Michael Murphy (October 1996)


 The first-ever referendum on taxing churches and other nonprofit agencies has been placed on the Colorado ballot to be voted on this November, an initiative led by attorney John Murphy, a Foundation member, who explains its genesis in a speech before the annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison Wisconsin, October 1996. This is an excerpt.

John Patrick Michael Murphy

Shortly after I was born I was baptised and circumcised, I’m not sure in which order, but they were both religious kinds of things. You can get saved as a child by being baptised, but to make it through the rest of your life you need something called “sanctifying grace” and you don’t get much of that at all until your first holy communion.

Right before my first holy communion in the Catholic Church, just as I was ready to go down the aisle, my beautiful only sister Sheila, six years older than I, said: “John, would you offer up all your sanctifying grace that you’re going to get this morning so that I can be a cheerleader at St. Mary’s High School?” I couldn’t turn her down! Maybe there is something to it. Ever since then I haven’t won an election and she hasn’t lost any. She’s now the presiding judge in Cook County. She continues to win elections.

Life was all right. I didn’t mind not having enough sanctifying grace to go around and I was into climbing mountains and making flags, neighborhood kids, my dog Rags, and polliwogs and just having a good, fun time with life. Then all of a sudden one of our very close family friends, a Catholic priest, came at me with an erection. I was only about seven or eight. And that’s “revelation.” He immunized me with that thing. I don’t have to worry about getting caught up with a cult. At any rate, that caused me to wonder why and to doubt. Of course, I kept it all to myself. I never was a team player after that. There was something different about me now. Your head’s screaming no, your heart’s screaming no, then all of a sudden your body’s feeling pleasure and you are one screwed up cookie for a while. My wife, Mary, finally got me to the psychiatrist when I was 45. I give a lot credit to that woman.

I secretly would drive from Colorado Springs for two hours to Fort Carson, Colorado, to see him for 50 minutes and then tear back to my office. It was a five-hour ordeal, once a week. After about eight or nine months of this I had had it. I had paid in cash, didn’t want my insurance to know. Didn’t want anyone to know anything about me. I wanted some results. I said to the doctor, “I want some answers instead of all your questions.”

And he said, “Okay, were you powerful when that priest came at you?”

I said, “No. Powerless. He was a big corpulent fellow, close to 300 pounds, and I was just a kid.”

Then he asked me, “Are you powerless now?” And it stopped me, it just absolutely arrested me.

I said, “No, I don’t think so.”

He said, “Well, do something about it!”

I asked, “What should I do?”

He said, “Some people sue, some people write letters and burn them, some people write letters and mail them. I don’t have that answer. It’s got to be within you.”

It was a hell of a hurt I had from that priest. Years later I told my mother and father about that priest and they just looked right through me. I love my parents. My dad’s gone now. They were truly wonderful people, but they were bejinxed in this area. They had the inability to follow through with rationality in this one area because it dealt with a priest. My mom and dad still showed me Christmas cards and letters from this Father Abercrombie and it burned me up because I told them what he had done, not just to me, but to others. I shared my hurt with my sister, who, at this point, was a judge in Chicago. Sheila got so mad when she found out she called the priest up at 5 a.m. to put it to him and the guy admitted it. She wanted to give the phone to my mother and father and they wouldn’t take it. After that I was partially healed. I didn’t have the resentment and anger, I wasn’t as mad at this guy anymore. I was mad at the hierarchy that moved him around.

I decided I had better write a letter to the Pope. None of this “heavenly or holy father” introduction stuff for me. It started off as “Dear Pope.” I got most of it off my chest in three pages and faxed it off to the Rocky Mountain News and life has never been the same. I asked for an apology. Not just for me, but for every child who should not have been a victim.

The Pope never did apologize. The Pope said that America was so decadent that it’s been tempting the priests, that some have become pedophiles because of America’s problems! That’s what the Pope’s answer was to these problems, and he’s infallible!

I then began to realize that every place I was molested was tax-exempt.

After a little studying and reading Walz v. the Commissioner, I found out that a tax-exemption is not a right, it is a privilege. It’s a beneficence. It’s a license. Walz says it’s a legislative question, a political question, not a constitutional one. The court unfortunately filled that decision with a lot of dicta that’s not binding on us, that basically says America has a tradition of supporting or helping or encouraging religion. Accommodationists essentially say it’s fine for government to prefer religion over nonreligion so long as you don’t prefer one sect, denomination or creed over another, hence the word “nonpreferentialist.” It doesn’t include us, though, you see.

Tax exemption is a political question up to the legislature. The legislature of Colorado had over twenty statutes granting exemptions, where constitutionally it only allows four. My idea of who should be exempt and who should not came from Robert Green Ingersoll. One night I was reading Ingersoll while right in the middle of this debate over how to write this initiative over tax exemption. Ingersoll said, “Let there be no mistake about it. When we aid an orphan, we are not engaging in charity. We are doing it for our own sakes, it is something we must do for our own humanity.”

If you can walk past it and not sleep there at night, it should be taxed. That’s our theory. We might be wrong, we might be right, but it’s up to the people. This is the new standard that Colorado will employ if Amendment 11 passes. Schools will continue to be exempt, regardless of whether they are religious or secular. Exempt would be orphanages and homes for elders, housing for the homeless, disabled, and abused persons. Colorado allows nonprofits to run prisons, and although I disagree with this, to be consistent, they should be exempt. It’s a short list; only seven institutions qualify for exemption. I think it’s our own duty to provide for our bodies when we shuck off this mortal foil and therefore we’re going to tax private (not municipal) cemeteries.

A year ago in August we started to get signatures. It started out slow. The first week we only had fourteen people. I was only supposed to be the mouthpiece of this and two other men were going to fund it. Well, one got nervous and thought that we’d fall on our faces and withdrew his funding. That was his right. My problem was that I had already announced on my weekly radio show, Murphy’s Law, that we were going to get this on the ballot. So I picked it up and carried it, with Mary’s help. I promised the public two things: that we’d get it on the ballot and we’d fight on for it. So far we’ve done both. We actually got 97,000 signatures!

We’ve been on CBS Evening News, CNN, in U.S. News and World Report, NPR, the list goes on and on, and soon we’ll be on Fox network and we’ve been in a USA Today cover story. We’ve been front page in a lot of them, the L.A. Times, The Philadelphia Enquirer, etc. But, believe it or not, in Colorado you won’t find us on the front page. There is intimidation, there is connivance, there’s more flim-flamming and power-brokering going on over this than you can imagine.

Then the opposition claimed the tax relief won’t go to the home owners, it only goes to the Wal-Marts, not the widows. The press put this on the front page, but they wouldn’t quote us. They wouldn’t allow us to counterpunch. And I’m a good counterpuncher. Dad was a boxer. He told me you didn’t need a defense if you had a hell of a counterpunch. Unfortunately the word didn’t get out in Colorado where it counts. The polls showed that about four out of ten people straight across the board support us. If they own any real estate, they are helping to subsidize the nonprofits. Every single person that owns real estate in Colorado is paying part of the priests’ salary by the fact that the church doesn’t have to pay real estate tax. We want it to go back to everybody exactly in the same proportion that they are now paying. Yes, Wal-Mart will get more money back than a typical widow of a single-family residence because they are subsidizing more. We don’t want to bribe the public and we don’t want a windfall for the public. We want it fair and that’s the way it will be if it passes.

Well, after we got it on the ballot I was about broke. We don’t have any money for the campaign, but I told the press a long time ago that we don’t need any money for the campaign. If the press really did its job, that would be a completely accurate statement. I said the magnitude of this issue will carry itself. The opposition, the folks that “can’t afford” real estate tax, have already spent half a million.

We have their attention. They’re as nervous as they can be and I haven’t had so much fun since my honeymoon!

Foundation member John Patrick Michael Murphy, an attorney from Colorado Springs, has appeared on “Sixty Minutes” and other national programs about his tax the church initiative. He is on sabbatical as host of a weekly radio program, “Murphy’s Law,” in Colorado Springs, which he has turned into a “freethinking ministry of the air.” He is married with three children, has served in various volunteer positions, has worked as a deputy district attorney and was chair of the Bar Associations, Wyoming State Bar, 1989.

Freedom From Religion Foundation