New Life Gainesville has tax-exempt status on its parking lot and building but not on the church-owned woods that surround it. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Behind New Life Gainesville church in western Prince William County, there’s a gravel path that leads to a thick grove of tall pines and rippling streams.

As far as New Life leaders are concerned, that land is part of their church and should enjoy the same tax-exempt status as the building that holds the arched-ceiling chapel. But county officials have a different view: They say the woods aren’t used for religious purposes and should be taxed.

When the county sent a $1,000 property tax bill, church leaders were not happy.

“Giving glory to God . . . is not taxable,” said Pastor Mike Hilson, who recently joined New Life Gainesville, formerly Fireside Wesleyan Church.

Prince William officials say that taxing some land owned by religious institutions is nothing new and that they are simply following state law, which mandates that only land that is “exclusively” for religious use is tax-

Church land partially taxable

County Attorney Angela Lemmon Horan said that county lawyers and tax assessors should not be in the business of defining religious use — that should be determined by what’s on the land.

“Who are we to say what is a sincerely held religious belief?” Horan asked. “The government can’t get into it.” That’s why, she said, county tax assessors focus on what the property is used for. A church or temple and its parking lot are not taxed because they are needed for the practice of religion, but any other land should be taxed, she said.

The tax bills have become an issue in Prince William as new churches are popping up to serve a growing population. County Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) said he plans to bring the issue up at Tuesday’s Board of County Supervisors meeting. He said he wants to ensure that the county is treating religious institutions fairly.

Covington said he especially wants to make state lawmakers aware of the issue, as county officials say they are doing what the law demands.

“To me, if you’re determining usage on a parcel of land, you’re interpreting things you could not possibly know as a government,” he said. Couldn’t church groups go for a walk in the woods, he said.

For many years, religious institutions and other nonprofit organizations were given the benefit of the doubt when it came to real-estate tax exemptions, said George Washington University law professor Robert Tuttle. More recently, he said, localities around the country have begun scrutinizing tax rolls more closely.

“Revenue has gotten tighter, and churches have gotten bigger,” Tuttle said. “You can understand why the assessors want to at least take a closer look.”

That’s not the case in Prince William, said county spokesman Jason Grant, who said the county has not changed its approach to taxing churches or other nonprofit groups.

Most of Prince William’s religious institutions operate tax-free, according to a county presentation. Of its 341 religious properties, 245, or 72 percent, are fully tax-exempt. Thirteen properties are partially tax-exempt, according to the county. The other 83 properties owned by religious institutions are fully taxed because the land remains vacant, a home on the site is not being used for a pastor’s residence or the group abandoned construction.

The county recently sent out a survey to 42 other state jurisdictions, proposing different scenarios and asking questions about how each locality would deal with a given situation. The survey results show that while most agree on how state law should be interpreted, there are some differences.

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said he is considering legislation that explains how the state’s religious tax-
exemption law should be interpreted by localities. He thinks the law clearly states that church property should not be taxed.

“How do you divide a nonprofit half and half?” he asked.

Both sides in the Prince William debate agree that for-profit ventures on church land — such as a cafe or rental housing — should be taxed.

But leaders at New Life Gainesville say the woods behind their church do not bring in any revenue. And because the land is in a protected rural area, the church cannot divide off the taxed land and sell it.

“The idea we’re going to throw a Starbucks back here is kind of ridiculous,” Hilson said.

Pastor Ken Taylor, who has been at the Bristow Assembly of God Church since 1982, said the county has left him and his church’s land alone over the past 30 years. That changed in January when he received a letter from the county asking what he was doing with a house that had long been on the property.

Taylor wrote back, saying it was under repair and not occupied. He began receiving real-estate tax bills, which now total $1,900.

He said he is appealing the bill to the county tax office and has hired an attorney and is prepared to bring the case to court. He has not paid those taxes and has no plans to do so, he said.

“I don’t like to have to pay attorney’s fees, that’s costing me as much as the tax would,” Taylor said. But, he said, it’s worth the price. “It would establish a very bad precedent to allow it to go on. You’re starting to legislate the practice of my religion.. . . The supreme law of the land says you don’t do that.”