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Sword-fighting libertarian church appears before Supreme Court for tax exemption case

Last modified: 10/16/2015 12:53:00 PM
A 5-year-old, nontheistic religion founded in New Hampshire – unusually characterized by its reverence for sword fighting and its meeting place, a Concord bar – argued its case for a property tax exemption before the state’s Supreme Court on Thursday.

The leaders of the Church of the Sword said they were treated unfairly when a Westmoreland home owned by the church and occupied by a pastor was denied tax-exempt status last year. They said it should qualify as a “parsonage” under state law.

In March, their appeal to the Cheshire County Superior Court was dismissed. The court issued an opinion stating 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 doctrines “are far more related to politics and self-improvement than to religion.”

By taking the case to the Supreme Court, the libertarian activists and Free State Project members who comprise church leadership brought themselves to the fore of a trend in the state. At least three newly created churches with Free State Project ties have sought tax exemption in varied court cases in 2014 and 2015.

Representing the church in a 15-minute oral argument before the five Supreme Court justices Thursday, attorney Dan Hynes said he wants a trial in which jurors would decide whether the church members’ beliefs are sincerely held. He said while New Hampshire courts have had little to say in defining religion, federal courts have demonstrated a standard the justices should follow.

“We’re asking the court to adopt the bright line rule that if it’s a sincerely held belief, that’s all that matters in religion,” Hynes said.

He characterized the town as having unfairly discriminated against the applicants because their religion is relatively new and doesn’t necessarily proclaim existence of a god.

“I would suggest Buddhism has hundreds of millions of people. They don’t have a god. They’re essentially working toward greater self-improvement. I would suggest that’s exactly what the Church of the Sword is doing,” he said.

Arguing for Westmoreland, Silas Little said the church leaders’ responses to an interrogatory “did not establish they met the statutory criteria for this property to be exempt from taxation.”

He pointed to the texts the church identified as guiding documents, including ones he said were about martial arts, war strategy and Confucianism. A fourth, he said, was written by a German philosopher, “who basically, as I understand, is the foundation of individual anarchism. That is a direct refutation of the concept that you have any organized religion.”

Justice Robert Lynn asked Little to expand on that idea. Little said, “If an individual espouses individual anarchism, then one is not part of any group or body. One is refuting the idea that there is a community. And the idea of religion – whether it’s monotheistic or polytheistic – is that you have an organized community that has a sense of common purpose with those standards and values.”

Lynn prodded further: “Someone couldn’t say, ‘I’m a Catholic, for example, and I’m an anarchist?’ You can’t be both?”

Little said that’s correct, adding, “The argument here is frankly that they can declare they’re a religion, set forth a confusion, conglomeration of ideas, some of which are just internally inconsistent, and then qualify for religious exemption. I don’t think that’s the intent of the statute.”

Here, Lynn began to question the lower court’s decision to issue a summary judgment in favor of the town without going through a fact-finding process.

“You may ultimately be correct,” he replied to Little. “I guess, frankly, I’m a little concerned that this is something the court could probably decide in summary judgment.”

Little said, however, that the facts presented to the court included all the information needed.

“Their answers to the interrogatories established that, in my estimation, that this is more akin to a book club that meets once a month and reads a book and then meets (in) the library and has a book discussion,” he said.

In a short rebuttal, Hynes said he disagreed with the idea that anarchists can’t be religious. He said he expects the court will issue a written decision between one and six months from now, which could remand the case back to a lower court or resolve it at once.

Mark Edgington, who lives in the so-called parsonage, said he expects the court will avoid declaring that the Church of the Sword is, in fact, a religion.

“If they make a ruling on whether or not Church of the Sword is a religion, they’re going to have to rule that it is,” he said.

Kirk McNeil, another of the church’s pastors, added, “I’m not sure the Supreme Court of New Hampshire wants to define religion themselves.”

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


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