Liberty activists in high court cases say their newly created religions afford them tax exemptions

Last modified: 7/29/2015 12:34:01 AM
A church pastor, late to the Sunday service, crashes through the door of a Concord bar, and the congregation inside turns to look. A second pastor, Stu Light, stands on the piste with a foam sword in hand. He calls out to the first pastor: “I look forward to killing you.”

At the Church of the Sword, where belief in a god or gods comes secondary to espousing principles of self-sufficiency and arming oneself, the greeting could be considered their version of “peace be with you.” After all, one of the holy texts of the 5-year-old, nontheistic, New Hampshire-born religion is Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

“We believe in an active struggle against those who would deprive us of life and liberty. We believe in studying and applying the martial path in the judicial and legislative arenas, as well as in self-defense,” says a sampling of the church’s statement of beliefs.

So when the town of Westmoreland said last year, and the Cheshire County Superior Court agreed this year, that the Church of the Sword isn’t a real religion – and therefore doesn’t qualify for a religious tax exemption – they took it as an attack on their freedom and struck back.

The church leaders filed a brief with the state Supreme Court this month, hoping to parry future tax bills at a Westmoreland property they say is a parsonage. Their riposte is designed to set a precedent by which lesser-known churches across the state can receive the tax relief they’re seeking.

At least three small churches in New Hampshire made up of liberty activists who moved to the state as members of the Free State Project have active petitions on their way to high courts. Thousands of libertarians have already taken up residence and pledged their intent to “exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property.”

They do so by gaining seats in the Legislature – more than a dozen Free Staters serve as state representatives – and, in this case, by seeking to set precedent in the courts.

“We’re going to win, and we’ll go to federal court immediately following, win or lose in New Hampshire,” said Kevin Bloom, the church’s senior pastor.

The church

The Church of the Sword’s services are held each Sunday at 11 a.m. at Area 23, a newly opened bar owned by Bloom and Kirk McNeil, who is another of the church’s four pastors. The church has 263 members, Bloom said, and has met weekly over the past five years in a variety of indoor and outdoor locations. Most services have about 25 congregants, though the highest weekly attendance was 90, Bloom said.

Their hymns are called “jams,” and in the case of the July 12 service, for lack of instruments, it was a reading from a manual on safe food preparation set to bongo drums. Their communion was hard cider, during the Ritual of Disobedience, which became a tradition after they held an early service in an East Concord park that forbade alcohol, cigarettes and firearms. “We had all those things,” Bloom said.

“We only have one ritual that we borrowed from the established religious organizations, and we call it begging for money,” Bloom said as he produced a pail to serve as a collection plate.

At the end, there’s the Ritual of Pie, a tasty signal that the service is ending. In this case, the pie took the form of small, round lemon and raspberry tarts.

“Other religions transform wine and grape juice and bread into flesh and blood, we transmute other baked products into pie,” Light said.

But above all, there’s the Ritual of Combat. It’s a series of sword fights with foam-covered weapons. Everyone at the service participates in at least one bout, and if they don’t, they’re tagged anyway in the ceremonial “slaughter of the innocents.” The most challenging feat on the way to becoming a pastor is to win six of 10 duels with fighters hand-selected by the pastors.

Light said the skills developed in sword fighting translate also to defending one’s opinions, a central tenet for the members whose ideas are sometimes controversial.

“Keep the other person off guard. Only get in striking distance when you’re ready to strike. Be on sure footing. Know your surroundings. It all ties together,” Light said.

One of the things Light ponders is what would happen if the state government vanished tomorrow. The people’s needs would still be the same, he said, so he thinks about ways to meet those needs that don’t rely on tax collectors, or “people who steal money for a living.”

Bloom, too, said he’d prefer if taxes came in the form of user fees.

“Personally, I’d like to see taxes done in any other way besides property taxes. I’d like everybody to be tax exempt in their property – absolutely – because I think there’s better ways,” he said. “Governments like it because everybody has to live someplace, so if you’re a renter or if you’re an owner you’re sort of stuck, because if you don’t pay your property taxes, they’re going to seize your property and sell it to somebody else. So you don’t really own your property, you’re always really just renting it from the government.”

The court case

In April 2014, the Church of the Sword applied to the town of Westmoreland for a religious-based property tax exemption at a house that had been transferred into the church’s possession days earlier. The 1114 Route 12 property, which the church calls a parsonage, is assessed at roughly $150,000. Its owners will owe about $3,200 in property taxes annually, said Town Administrator Jo Ann LaBarre.

After the town denied the church’s request, Bloom appealed to the Cheshire County Superior Court. The superior court’s summary judgment in favor of the town, from March 6, unequivocally states that the Church of the Sword “is neither religious nor a church” but rather it “is clearly a social organization that uses religious vocabulary to describe its practices” and that its doctrine “are far more related to politics and self-improvement than to religion.”

The court recognized that “there is no concrete definition of ‘church’ or ‘religious’ ” but determined it is within the constitutional powers of the town to determine whether an entity that holds itself out as a church is, in fact, religious.

“The power to make religious based property tax exemptions necessarily includes the power to decide what organizations qualify as ‘religious,’ ” the court states.

Bloom argued that the church was being discriminated against merely because it’s new, and he said it’s unfair for one town attorney to make the call as to what is and isn’t a religion.

“I certainly don’t believe that’s the province of the town, and I think if you met every single week for five years, like we have, and did everything that we do, I think you’d be pretty sure you’re a religion, too,” he said, noting the church’s involvement in community service, weddings and funerals, its visits to people in hospitals and prison, and the money it has raised for “good causes,” including paying legal fees for people deemed to be unjustly accused.

The challengers

Mark Edgington, a radio talk show host and pastor of the Church of the Sword who lives in the Westmoreland parsonage, declined to be interviewed. In an email, he wrote, “I think it is best if we keep the messaging consistent” and deferred to Bloom.

Edgington, however, is involved with a similar situation in Keene, where the Shire Free Church Monadnock is seeking a property tax exemption for a Leverett Street duplex where its ministers live. At a meeting of the board of assessors in June 2014, Edgington spoke on behalf of the church and said that he’d created it himself, according to the meeting minutes. He noted at the meeting that he’s “morally opposed to a public school system” and instead chose to donate to private schools in town.

“He stated that is why they want this parsonage; that they intend to continue to give money that way. A court case could go into the high 10’s and low 100’s of thousands of dollars, Mr. Edgington noted, as it costs money for lawyers and stenographers, etc. As stewards of the tax dollars, he said he thinks that is something the Board should take into strong consideration,” the minutes state.

Although Edgington said at the meeting that he planned to take the case to the Supreme Court, the Keene Sentinel reported in May that the church was dropping its case after the appeal was denied – with plans to file again, this time with the help of Manchester attorney Brandon Ross.

In an interview after the hearing posted on YouTube, Edgington said the city didn’t want to do anything that could be perceived as appeasing the liberty activists there.

“As far as they’re concerned, we’re a terrorist organization, and they don’t want to do anything – it’s abhorrent to them, it makes them sick to their stomachs, the idea that they might do something we like, and so I guess we’re just going to have to fight it in court,” he said.

“Even if we lose a court case, over time we’re going to make it. And there’s nothing they can do about it,” he said. “They can’t stop it. . . . The city has to be beaten at this point. That’s what they’ve said. They said they wanted a battle.”

When Edgington was 18 and living in Florida, he was convicted of second-degree murder for his involvement as a 17-year-old in the strangling of a hotel manager, as reported in the Sept. 1, 1989, edition of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune . In the Jan. 29, 2007, edition of his radio show, Free Talk Live, he said he was a different person then – when he burglarized a dead woman’s house, broke into a car, and “did a whole lot of drugs,” he said – than he is today.

Ross, the Manchester attorney, wrote in an email that he is also representing another church, the Peaceful Assembly Church in Grafton, which is set for a final hearing in September. In that case, the 1798 church has new ownership that was denied a tax exemption in June 2014.

John Connell, the minister of the interfaith Christian church with a small congregation, said he felt he was being unfairly targeted because of his status as a Free Stater.

“There’s definitively prejudice against Free Staters. There’s no doubt about it, and it’s pretty harsh,” he said.

Their chances

By way of perspective, there are 77 properties in Concord receiving religious property tax exemptions, out of 14,637 total, assessing staff said. For those across the state who have challenged denials, attorneys and law professors said they’re entering a cloudy area of the law.

Bill Chapman, an attorney for Orr & Reno, said there were two cases that went through the state Supreme Court in the past 20 years that he found informative. In one, brought by the Emissaries of Divine Light regarding a so-called monastery in Epping, the court upheld the town’s rejection, citing the aspects of the property that weren’t used principally for religious purposes: residences, agricultural land, support buildings and vacant land. Other areas were upheld as tax exempt: its chapel, dining hall, administrative building, parsonage and classroom.

On balance, the court noted Webster’s dictionary definition of a monastery – namely, “a house of religious retirement or of seclusion from the world for persons under religious vows” – then contrasted what it found to be the use of the property. “Emissaries’ members do not live in religious retirement or seclusion from the world. Instead . . . many members live on the taxpayer’s property but work in surrounding communities and pay rent to the taxpayer,” the court said, also noting that members don’t take vows.

The definition of a parsonage, though, is more simple: “a church house provided for a member of the clergy.” It’s unclear in court documents the specific activities Edgington, who was ordained days before the church sought an exemption, carries out in the house, except to say that it’s “90% Parsonage and 10% Retreat,” with the retreat aspect by invitation only and not open to the public.

The Church of the Sword argues prominently that the trial court erred in granting a summary judgment, essentially denying the church a day in court and asserting as indisputable fact that it’s not a “regularly recognized” religious denomination.

“It was err for the Trial Court to grant Summary Judgment where the factual issue of an organizations classification as a ‘church’ or ‘religious’ is in dispute and there is no concrete definition of ‘church’ or ‘religious,’ ” the church’s brief states.

Calvin Massey, a UNH law professor, said the question is rooted in “how genuinely and sincerely held are their beliefs?” He noted that some people have a hard time believing in the Mormon Church and its teachings that Jesus Christ appeared in North America, for instance.

“So far as I know, there’s no historical support for that, but those beliefs are genuinely held,” he said.

As for the pattern of small churches in New Hampshire challenging the court system, Massey said it could affect the outcome of the case.

“It might cast some doubt on whether these beliefs are sincerely held religious beliefs or simply political views,” he said.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or or on Twitter @NickBReid.)

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