“Pastors also have agreed… to preach environmentally focused sermons”

In exchange for relief from a state-mandated stormwater remediation fee, and direct government subsidies to pay for property improvements intended to reduce runoff, some churches in Prince George’s County, Maryland have made an unusual commitment to the authorities. I explain, and raise questions, at Free State Notes. Since when does government get the power to cut churches tax breaks in exchange for their agreement to preach an approved line? (& Bader, CEI)


  • I see nothing wrong with this so long as this service is available to everyone, regardless of race, gender or creed. Perhaps there should be a requirement that it be announced the sermon is made in compliance with a particular agreement and how much money was involved. Maybe publish a schedule of rates, so that if you want a sermon on eternal damnation for buying your tires anyplace but Goodyear (“Why do you think they call it Firestone?!”) or just a thirty-second commercial (“And now a word from our sponsor!” “Hi, I’m Beelzebub, and when I’m not lording it over flies….”)…

    So, yeah, it sounds fine to me. What could go wrong?


  • I’m pretty sure this violates the establishment clause – the government is officially giving tax breaks based on what is being preached.

    There’s also a good argument to be made that it violates the free exercise of religion if some of the sermon time is co-opted for a government-sponsored message.

  • I’ve always thought that there was little to be said in favor of tax breaks to churches at all. This is really next level ridiculous. How does anyone argue with a straight face that paying a church to deliver a particular message doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause?

  • This violates the unconstitutional conditions doctrine.

    Under Supreme Court precedent, you can’t condition a valuable government benefit like a tax exemption on the content of speech. Speiser v. Randall, 357 U.S. 513 (1958), was a U.S. Supreme Court case addressing the State of California’s refusal to grant to ACLU lawyer Lawrence Speiser, a veteran of World War II, a tax exemption because that person refused to sign a loyalty oath as required by a California law enacted in 1954. The court reversed a lower court ruling that the loyalty oath provision did not violate the appellants’ First Amendment rights. See also Dollan v. City of Tigard, 512 U.S. 374, 385 (1994) (general statement of unconstitutional conditions doctrine).

    Even if this does not violate the unconstitutional conditions doctrine (tying a government benefit to speech), why doesn’t the government monitoring and meddling in the content of sermons constitute undue entanglement under the Establishment Clause of the federal constitution and the religion clauses of the Maryland constitution?
    Cf. Larkin v. Grendel’s den, 459 U.S. 116 (1982) (symbiotic union of church and state violated establishment clause).

    Government officials are not supposed to even indirectly meddle in things like the “voice of the church,” even through generally-applicable labor or employment laws (which this is not, making it more suspect). See, e.g., EEOC v. Catholic University of America, 83 F.3d 455 (D.C. Cir. 1996).

  • Hah. I would support this only if the government would provide the same benefit to everyone. Imagine a Walmart manager agreeing to preach environmental messages to the staff in return for a tax abatement. Brilliant.

    On a serious note… government should stay off the pulpit. I have no problem with the abatement measures in return for lower taxes. But telling the church what to preach to the choir is a bridge too far.

  • Back to selling indulgences, are we?

  • I would support this only if the government would provide the same benefit to everyone.

    I had the same thought initially. But on further reflection, allowing “anyone” to do this would still be a free speech violation, in my opinion. Spout the government line or pay? That’s not something we should allow.

  • These pastors have no faith. “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth (Gen. 9:11).”
    Well J.H.C., a little bit of runoff isn’t worth knuckling under to Caesar. They ought to tell Prince George County they have no fear of flooding and P.G.C. should go pound sand if they’re worried about drainage.
    In fact, everyone in Prince George County should tell them that. What would they do?

  • Dear Ras—-It was the “Authority” that was selling indulgences to the community—-in this case the “community” is being forced/paid to perform ‘indulgences’