Multiple churches in East St. Louis, Ill., are reportedly challenging city officials on an annual "registration fee" they are required to pay, arguing that the $100 fee counts as taxation of a tax-exempt institution.
Pastors of multiple churches in East St. Louis argue that their churches should be exempt from paying the registration fee due to the separation of church and state.
"This is a problem in the separation of church and state," the Rev. Robert Jones III of John Devine Missionary Baptist Church told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last Thursday, shortly before a city council meeting regarding the annual registration fee took place.
"They're trying to tax a church … for a service that does not even exist," Jones added.
Churches in East St. Louis have not had to pay the annual registration fee in the past, and although some pastors and media outlets describe it as a revenue grab for the city, city officials argue that the registration fee goes primarily to fire inspections of the churches and partially to administrative costs.
"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," Alvin Parks Jr., the mayor of East St. Louis, said in a recent 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," Parks added.
Parks told BET that the city has given local churches the opportunity to independently hire a safety inspector and provide documentation to the city that the building was up to code, but he believes allowing the city to do it would be the easiest method.
"We are willing to give the churches the choice," Parks told BET. "But it would be easier for them to simply pay the $100 and have the city do it."
Still, many of the pastors do not seem to be satiated by the "choice" to do their own self-inspection.
"A church is a collection of believers who happen to worship in a building, and all those citizens already paid taxes," the Rev. Rick Jackson of Greater St. Luke AME Church said in a separate article written by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"When you start to encroach on religious freedom by charging for something the law says you should already be doing, that's a slippery slope. What's next?" Jackson, who is reportedly the mayor's pastor, questioned.
Other pastors have reportedly argued that because their churches serve as houses for a variety of other services, such as employment-finding services, they are relieving a burden from city officials and should not be required to pay the registration fee.
The city has reportedly given the pastors an extended deadline of Sept. 30 to have their places of worship inspected, either through an independent contractor or city officials.