Washington, D.C. has been dealing with an unclean water problem for years now, but they instituted a new plan earlier this year that would store a mixture of stormwater and raw sewage in newly built underground tunnels, preventing the bad water from mixing with the good stuff in the Anacostia River until it was properly treated.
That’s all well and good… but also very expensive. So, in 2009, the city began charging people for the amount of “impervious surface” they owned. The thinking went like this: If you had a big backyard, the grass would just soak up the water. But if you owned a large parking lot, the stormwater had to go somewhere and the city was taking care of it. So it made sense to impose an additional charge on individuals and organizations that owned a lot of that type of surface. The Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge (CRIAC) this year amounts to about $25.18 per 1,000 square feet of such surfacing.
That’s a lot of money if you own a cemetery or a large parking lot… which, as it turns out, many churches do. No wonder they began complaining about the money they were being told to cough up.
And this is where things went awry from a church/state perspective. The DC Council set aside some money, temporarily, for taxpayer relief to help those directly affected by the new rate, but they treated secular non-profit groups differently from religious ones.
To get the tax relief from the city, secular non-profits had to show that the new fee came out to more than 5% of their revenue (after expenses). But churches only had to show it was more than 0.75% of the same total. In other words, the rules were designed to be more accommodating for religious groups.
Asa former water board member pointed out, it would be harder for the Holocaust Museum to receive relief than, say, a nearby Catholic church.
The special treatment for religious organizations also laid the groundwork for a potential lawsuit.
The good news is that the plan has now been altered to avoid the Establishment Clause violation.
“We’re going to treat all nonprofits, which include churches and religious organizations, the same,” said Tommy Wells, director of D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment while addressing a group of potential applicants for relief Friday.
Now, all nonprofits and religious groups will have to show the Clean Rivers fee is 1 percent of their total revenue after expenses. They can get up to 90 percent of their Clean Rivers fees paid for by the District.
That’s the right move from a First Amendment standpoint, but the relief program is only designed to last for one year. It’s unclear how the city will move forward after that.
But at least this particular policy won’t be hashed out in court.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Sarah for the link)