397 U.S. 664 (1970), 135, Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York

Docket Nº:No. 135
Citation:397 U.S. 664, 90 S.Ct. 1409, 25 L.Ed.2d 697
Party Name:Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York
Case Date:May 04, 1970
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 664

397 U.S. 664 (1970)

90 S.Ct. 1409, 25 L.Ed.2d 697



Tax Comm'n of the City of New York

No. 135

United States Supreme Court

May 4, 1970

Argued November 19, 1969



Appellant property owner unsuccessfully sought an injunction in the New York courts to prevent the New York City Tax Commission from granting property tax exemptions to religious organizations for properties used solely for religious worship, as authorized by the state constitution and the implementing statute providing for tax exemptions for property used exclusively for religious, educational, or charitable purposes. Appellant contended that the exemptions, as applied to religious bodies, violated provisions prohibiting establishment of religion under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.


1. The First Amendment tolerates neither governmentally established religion nor governmental interference with religion. Pp. 667-672.

2. The legislative purpose of tax exemptions is not aimed at establishing, sponsoring, or supporting religion, and New York's legislation simply spares the exercise of religion from the burden of property taxation levied on private profit institutions. Pp. 672-674.

3. The tax exemption creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, far less than taxation of churches would entail, and it restricts the fiscal relationship between them, thus tending to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other. Pp. 674-676.

4. Freedom from taxation for two centuries has not led to an established church or religion, and, on the contrary, has helped to guarantee the free exercise of all forms of religious belief. Pp. 676-680.

24 N.Y.2d 30, 246 N.E.2d 517, affirmed.

Page 666

BURGER, J., lead opinion

MR. CHIEF JUSTICE BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

Appellant, owner of real estate in Richmond County, New York, sought an injunction in the New York courts to prevent the New York City Tax Commission from granting property tax exemptions to religious organizations for religious properties used solely for religious worship. The exemption from state taxes is authorized by Art. 16, § 1, of the New York Constitution, which provides in relevant part:

Exemptions from taxation may be granted only by general laws. Exemptions may be altered or repealed except those exempting real or personal property used exclusively for religious, educational or

Page 667

charitable purposes as defined by law and owned by any corporation or association organized or conducted exclusively for one or more of such purposes and not operating for profit.1

The essence of appellant's contention was that the New York City Tax Commission's grant of an exemption to church property indirectly requires the appellant to make a contribution to religious bodies, and thereby violates provisions prohibiting establishment of religion under the First Amendment which, under the Fourteenth Amendment, is binding on the States.2

Appellee's motion for summary judgment was granted, and the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court, and the New York Court of Appeals affirmed. We noted probable jurisdiction, [90 S.Ct. 1411] 395 U.S. 957 (1969), and affirm.


Prior opinions of this Court have discussed the development and historical background of the First Amendment in detail. See Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962). It would therefore serve no useful purpose to review in detail the background of the Establishment and Free

Page 668

Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment or to restate what the Court's opinions have reflected over the years.

It is sufficient to note that, for the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the "establishment" of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity. In England, and in some Colonies at the time of the separation in 1776, the Church of England was sponsored and supported by the Crown as a state, or established, church; in other countries, "establishment" meant sponsorship by the sovereign of the Lutheran or Catholic Church. See Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. at 428 n. 10. See generally C. Antieau, A. Downey, & E. Roberts, Freedom from Federal Establishment (1964). The exclusivity of established churches in the 17th and 18th centuries, of course, was often carried to prohibition of other forms of worship. See Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. at 9-11; L. Pfeffer, Church, State and Freedom 71 et seq. (1967).

The Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses of the First Amendment are not the most precisely drawn portions of the Constitution. The sweep of the absolute prohibitions in the Religion Clauses may have been calculated, but the purpose was to state an objective, not to write a statute. In attempting to articulate the scope of the two Religion Clauses, the Court's opinions reflect the limitations inherent in formulating general principles on a case by-case basis. The considerable internal inconsistency in the opinions of the Court derives from what, in retrospect, may have been too sweeping utterances on aspects of these clauses that seemed clear in relation to the particular cases, but have limited meaning as general principles.

The Court has struggled to find a neutral course between the two Religion Clauses, both of which are cast in absolute terms, and either of which, if expanded to a

Page 669

logical extreme, would tend to clash with the other. For example, in Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306 (1952), MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS, writing for the Court, noted:

The First Amendment, however, does not say that, in every and all respects, there shall be a separation of Church and State.

Id. at 312.

We sponsor an attitude on the part of government that shows no partiality to any one group, and that lets each flourish according to the zeal of its adherents and the appeal of its dogma.

Id. at 313.

MR. JUSTICE HARLAN expressed something of this in his dissent in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963), saying that the constitutional neutrality imposed on us

is not so narrow a channel that the slightest deviation from an absolutely straight course leads to condemnation.

Id. at 422.

The course of constitutional neutrality in this area cannot be an absolutely straight line; rigidity could well defeat the basic purpose of these provisions, which is to insure that no religion be sponsored or favored, none commanded, and none inhibited. The general principle deducible from the First Amendment and all that has been said [90 S.Ct. 1412] by the Court is this: that we will not tolerate either governmentally established religion or governmental interference with religion. Short of those expressly proscribed governmental acts, there is room for play in the joints productive of a benevolent neutrality which will permit religious exercise to exist without sponsorship and without interference.

Each value judgment under the Religion Clauses must therefore turn on whether particular acts in question are intended to establish or interfere with religious beliefs and practices or have the effect of doing so. Adherence to the policy of neutrality that derives from an accommodation of the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses

Page 670

has prevented the kind of involvement that would tip the balance toward government control of churches or governmental restraint on religious practice.

Adherents of particular faiths and individual churches frequently take strong positions on public issues, including, as this case reveals in the several briefs amici, vigorous advocacy of legal or constitutional positions. Of course, churches, as much as secular bodies and private citizens, have that right. No perfect or absolute separation is really possible; the very existence of the Religion Clauses is an involvement of sorts -- one that seeks to mark boundaries to avoid excessive entanglement.

The hazards of placing too much weight on a few words or phrases of the Court is abundantly illustrated within the pages of the Court's opinion in Everson. MR. JUSTICE BLACK, writing for the Court s majority, said the First Amendment

means at least this: neither a state nor the Federal Government can . . . pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another.

330 U.S. at 15. Yet he had no difficulty in holding that:

Measured by these standards, we cannot say that the First Amendment prohibits New Jersey from spending tax raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools. It is undoubtedly true that children are helped to get to church schools. There is even a possibility that some of the children might not be sent to the church schools if the parents were compelled to pay their children's bus fares out of their own pockets. . . .

Id. at 17. (Emphasis added.)

Page 671

The Court did not regard such "aid" to schools teaching a particular religious faith as any more a violation of the Establishment Clause than providing "state-paid policemen, detailed to protect children . . . [at the schools] from the very real hazards of traffic. . . ." Ibid.

Mr. Justice Jackson, in perplexed dissent in Everson, noted that

the undertones of the opinion, advocating complete and uncompromising separation . . . seem utterly discordant with its conclusion. . . .

Id. at 19.

Perhaps so. One can sympathize with Mr. Justice Jackson's logical analysis but agree with the Court's eminently sensible and realistic application of the language of the Establishment Clause. In Everson, the Court declined to construe the Religion Clauses with a literalness that would undermine the ultimate constitutional...

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