LINCOLN — It was New Testament v. Old Testament when Nebraska lawmakers considered a bill Friday to put churches and other religious property on the tax rolls.
Emperors Charlemagne and Constantine also figured in a public hearing about Legislative Bill 675.
On one side was State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who introduced the bill and frequently makes clear he does not believe in any type of religion.
He quoted from the New Testament story of Jesus' response when asked about paying taxes to the Roman emperor: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's.”
“This bill simply carries out what Jesus wanted to see his followers do,” Chambers said.
On the other side was Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha, a member of the Revenue Committee and a Republican governor candidate.
McCoy countered with an Old Testament verse from the book of Ezra: “You are also to know that you have no authority to impose taxes, tribute or duty on any of the priests, Levites, musicians, gatekeepers, temple servants or other workers at this house of God.”
He and other committee members gave a cool reception to Chambers' proposal.
Chambers said he introduced the bill to help the state's tax coffers.
Property taxes paid by religious groups could ease the burden on other taxpayers, as well as reduce the need for state aid to schools and other local subdivisions.
“I believe everybody should pay their fair share, including religious organizations,” Chambers said.
How much revenue the bill would generate for local governments and how it might affect state aid could not be determined, however.
The legislative fiscal office and Department of Revenue said county assessors do not have information about property owned by religious groups. Such property is free from property tax if it is used for religious, educational or charitable purposes.
The bill won support from the Secular Coalition of Nebraska. Justin Evertson said the group represents the 200,000 to 300,000 Nebraskans who do not identify themselves as religious.
“We think it's time to have this debate and have this discussion,” he said, although he acknowledged that the bill is unlikely to pass.
Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, spoke in opposition.
He said the bill would end a policy that has been sound and effective for more than a century in Nebraska and is common among other states.
The exemption recognizes “the many ways that nonprofit religious organizations use their property to serve the common good and advance the personal and social betterment of individuals, families and communities,” Cunningham said.
He said taxing church property would amount to double taxing of church members, who pay to support their church out of income that has already been taxed.
The hearing also brought up some impromptu history lessons.
Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney, the Revenue Committee chairman, said tax exemptions for religious properties — and debates about them — go back to the days of Constantine, at the beginning of the fourth century.
He wondered whether the state should break such precedent.
He also questioned why property owned by educational and charitable organizations should remain tax-exempt if religious ones are taxed.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus talked of tensions between the altar and the king, meaning church and state, that date back to Charlemagne's reign at the beginning of the ninth century.
The Revenue Committee took no immediate action on the bill.
Correction: Justin Evertson's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.