Massachusetts has its own religious liberty case going before its highest court on Tuesday. The case involves the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette and the city of Attleboro. In 2012, the city declared that most of the shrine’s property, which includes wooded land, a conference center, gift shop, welcome center, and cafeteria, in addition to chapels and monastery, was not exempt from property tax because, in the town’s view, only buildings used for actual worship should be exempt. As Jeff Jacoby writes at the Boston Globe:
More is at stake in this dispute than a local Catholic shrine or Attleboro’s budget. The much deeper issue is this: Do religious organizations decide for themselves what they require for their devotional and educational missions, or do municipal tax authorities decide for them?
This is also at the heart of the Obama administration’s fight with the Little Sisters of the Poor, among others.
It isn’t only in pews and with prayerbooks that houses of God fulfill their role. Charity drives and interfaith dialogue, youth retreats and blood drives, marital counseling and religious bookstores — far from being peripheral to a church’s religious purpose, they often go to its essence. In the words of one Unitarian Universalist congregation: “The church has left the building.” That is what churches are supposed to do, and why Attleboro’s tax-grab must be rolled back.
Under the First Amendment, who gets to decide what constitutes the religion we are free to practice? And does the First Amendment protect our right to live out our religious beliefs or just merely or ability to engage in worship?