Religious institutions get a pass on taxes. That is one of the sacred traditions of secular American society. And while there are occasional rumblings about this, most of us willingly, even gladly, endorse this exemption in return for what we know the faith community gives back to society.
Freed of property taxes, congregations can afford to be and stay in the most desperate of communities, providing their neighbors-in-need with invaluable spiritual uplift, financial assistance, material support, food, clothing and job training.
Freed of excise taxes, congregations can be partners with government in delivering social services that offer affordable childcare, senior care, after-school programs, recovery and re-entry programs, educational enrichment, neighborhood stability, citizen engagement and so much more.
Freed of taxes, congregations do not have to pursue the commercial model of fee-for-service or members-only but can serve all those who seek community, belonging, hospitality, a sense of transcendence and an open door, whether those served “qualify” for that service, have paid for that service or are members of the congregation.
It is this indispensable value of just being there for all that adds immeasurably to the health and fabric of a community — both physically and spiritually — and enables our faith institutions to merit this coveted status of being tax-exempt. Without it, they might not be able to be there, and we would lose the very presence that serves us all.
It is a different matter, however, with stormwater fees. In this case, it is the physical presence of the faith institutions that harms us. It is the hard, impermeable surfaces of these buildings and parcels that generate polluted stormwater runoff that harms our waters, our land — and us. It is the old design of the buildings, parking lots and downspouts that hurts the health and the economy of the very people the faith institutions are there to serve.
The good news is that we are learning ways to design better and build smarter, putting us in sync with the blessings and blueprints of the cycles of nature, allowing nature to do its magic in storing, filtering, cleaning and recycling our water — which nature does for free.
But in the meantime, we need resources to address the problems we have created. The stormwater utility fee, in partnership with the best water management behaviors we can pursue on our own properties, enables all of us to be part of the solution. And perhaps unintended but not unwelcome, it is focusing the attention of the faith community on environmental issues, which is as it should be.
Taking care of the earth is not disconnected from the spiritual enterprise of the faith community. Tending to the earth is, rather, every bit as much a spiritual calling as it is a physical one. As Liberty Hyde Bailey said almost 100 years ago: “One does not act rightly toward one’s fellows if one does not know how to act rightly toward the earth.” And that includes our relationship with rain.
In many jurisdictions where stormwater fees are being assessed, faith institutions are being asked to contribute their fair share to help communities develop and implement comprehensive stormwater management programs that will serve us all. In response, some faith institutions have been resistant.
They shouldn’t be. Managing stormwater through fairly assessed fees and properly designed buildings and grounds is doing what we teach to our youngest children — cleaning up the mess we make. By paying our fair share of the fees, by creating water-wise management on our properties, by modeling the ways our congregants and neighbors can manage water on theirs, we take responsibility for our own actions and lead the way to healthier communities.
Some of these model behaviors include disconnecting our downspouts and redirecting our water flow; creating rain gardens and attractive bioswales that improve both our water management and the aesthetics of our communities; installing curb cuts that allow rainwater to run into parking lot tree pits or planted areas, keeping the rain from our sewers and putting it where it can do immediate good; planting orchards that not only absorb vast amounts of rainwater but also provide fruit for neighbors in need.
We are still unlearning the mistakes of the past and learning the best ways to build for the future. With a fair fee structure, meaningful credits, incentives for creating on-site water management, and a renewed sense of how nature can be part of the solution and not just a source of the problem, we can create healthier, more beautiful places for us to live. This task involves all of us. Faith institutions, too.