Atheist Lawmaker Introduces Bill Ending Church Property Tax Exemption; Says Jesus Would Approve

An atheist lawmaker in Nebraska has introduced a bill that would strip churches and religious organizations in the state of their property tax exemptions.

State Senator Ernie Chambers (D-Omaha), an atheist, said at a Nebraska Revenue Committee meeting last week that he believes his new bill, Legislative Bill 675, will help ease the tax rates of Nebraska citizens by requiring churches and religious organizations to pay property tax. Additionally, Chambers argued that the bill could reduce the need for state aid to local governments and schools. The bill continues to allow nonreligious educational and charitable organizations to remain tax exempt.

"The purpose of LB 675 is to help the state gain more revenue, rather than less, by taking away churches' property tax exemptions," Chambers read in his Statement of Intent at last Friday's committee meeting. "If taxes were paid on the many churches and cathedrals and temples in every city in this state, perhaps the state's assistance to local governments and schools would be diminished considerably – leaving more in state coffers for other purposes."

Chambers went on to say that there are nearly 3,000 church properties in the state. The senator, who reiterated his atheism during his presentation, added that charging churches property tax is what Jesus would have wanted, referencing the Bible's New Testament story of Jesus saying "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's."

"This bill simply carries out what Jesus wanted to see his followers do," Chambers said. "I believe everybody should pay their fair share, including religious operations."

According to the Omaha World-Herald, an impromptu history lesson then ensued among lawmakers at Friday's meeting after Chambers quoted the Bible. Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, who is running for the state's governor position, countered Chambers' statement by pointing to the Old Testament's Book of Ezra. "You are also to know that you have no authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of the priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers, temple servants or other workers at this house of God," the senator said.

The bill has received the backing of some atheists, including one member of the Secular Coalition for Nebraska, but others, including Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, have requested that the bill be killed.

"There is no compelling or sufficient reason to terminate this traditional exemption, which is firmly grounded in meeting human needs and serving the common good," Cunningham told the committee.

Additionally, Cindy Johnson, president of the Grand Island Chamber of Commerce, told the local KHAS-TV station that she doesn't see the bill moving forward, arguing that the services provided by churches to the community, such as helping the homeless, are a tradeoff for their tax exempt status. "Those services provided by the church have a value to the community," she said. "As with many things, that's a tradeoff."

The Revenue Committee took no action on LB 675 at its meeting Friday. Senator Chambers has previously been very open about his atheism, filing a lawsuit against God in 2007 in what he said was a symbolic gesture to show all lawsuits, no matter how frivolous, should be heard by the courts. At the time there was reportedly a proposal that suggested a ban be put on the filing of lawsuits deemed too unimportant for court. Chambers' lawsuit against God was dismissed by a county judge.