Free State Project

Does a Religion Need to Worship a Supreme Being? New Hampshire Supreme Court Considers the Question

"Church of the Sword," run by associates of the Free State Project, sues over the state's right to define religion.

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Some folks associated with the Free State Project in New Hampshire are suing the town of Westmoreland over what they see as an illegitimate effort on the town's part to declare their church not a real church, roughly because it doesn't worship any supreme being. As per that decision, church founder Kevin Bloom tells me "We disagree, naturally, and so do Taoists and Buddhists, among others."

COTS website

The church is called the Church of the Sword (COTS). The church had a pastor living in some property it had been gifted, and when they filed to remove it from property tax rolls as a parsonage, as church's do, back in April 2014, their filing was denied. (The annual tax due would be around $3,200.)

COTS lost its suit in round one at Cheshire County Superior Court earlier this year in a summary judgment declaration for the city that COTS was simply not a real religion, and tomorrow oral arguments are scheduled in COTS's appeal to New Hampshire's Supreme Court.

During a written interview, Bloom defends the COTS status as a religion:

On its face, COTS qualifies as a religion as the IRS defines it via the 14 point test. More importantly, a religion should consist of three elements.

It should do good works. By that I mean charity, and visiting members who are prisoners and members in the hospital. We keep track of each other. In fact, the impetus for putting CotS together was the suicide of a new mover, who came here directly after seeing combat in Iraq. He just disappeared, and we later learned he'd shot himself. While we can't keep in touch with 2000 people, we can hopefully keep track of our congregation. We solemnize marriages and perform memorial services. We provide counseling and help where we can.

The second element is largely social, we're a place where friends can see each other once a week. 

The third element is the philosophical and religious component. Our beliefs are strongly influenced by Taoist thought; we do not believe in one revealed religion. Rather, we seek to find the good in all religions. Lao Tse famously said, (paraphrase) "I also teach people about their religions". The sword use is the first part of the church service. Other religions don't usually feature armed combat as part of the service, but we do! 

Here are the IRS's 14 points for consideration, about what they think qualifies as an exempt church, for your own judgment.

The Church's filings in the case to be heard tomorrow at the New Hampshire Supreme Court quote the town declaration that won them summary judgment, that COTS is not

"1. A regularly recognized and constituted denomination, creed, or sect. 2. A religious organization, and 3. Is more properly described as a debating society or a philosophy discussion group" and that the Superior Court agreed, noting "the Church of the Sword offers no evidence that it is 'regularly recognized' as a religious denomination as required under RSA 72:23, III. It is not part of any larger religious organization and it has been holding services for only four and a half years." 

The court further went on to state the "Church of the Sword also does not qualify for a tax exemption under the statute because it is not a church or other religious group."  However, the court goes on to state, "The Court recognizes that there is no concrete definition of 'church' or 'religious."

To sum up the (complicated, as in most court cases) arguments made by COTS on this appeal, from their filing:

Summary judgment can only be granted if no genuine issue as to any material fact exists….

In the present case, one issue before the court is whether the Church of the Sword is a "regularly recognized" and constituted denomination, creed, or sect within the meaning of RSA 72;23, III.  The court noted the Church of the Sword offers no evidence that it is "regularly recognized" as a religious denomination as required under RSA 72:23, III.  It bases this on the fact that it is not part of a larger religious organization and it has been holding services for only four and a half years….

The court defeats its own argument in footnote 1 where it acknowledges "there may be constitutional concerns in denying a property tax exemption to a newly formed religious group solely because it has not yet become "regularly recognized."  The US Court of Federal Claims has held that "[a] new religious organization should not be held to a standard only an established church can satisfy." Church of the Visible Intelligence that Governs the Universe v. United States, 4 Cl. Ct. 55,65 (1983); see also United States v. Meyers, 906 F. Supp. 1494, 1509 (D. Wyo. 1995) (suggesting that the First Amendment forbids governmental discrimination against new religions)…

In its Memorandum in Support of its Motion for Summary Judgment, the Town quotes from the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The common and ordinary meaning of religion is "a set of beliefs, values and practices based on the teachings of a spiritual leader.  It is also defined as a particular variety of such belief, especially when organized into a system of doctrine and practice and its first meaning is the belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers, regarded as creating and governing the universe." …

Therefore, the Town of Westmoreland's definition of religion excludes all non-theistic religions such as Daoism (also spelled Taoism) which does not have "a single founder, such as Jesus or the Buddha, nor does it have a single key message, such as the gospel or the four noble truths.  Rather Daoism bears witness to a history of continuous self-invention within a vast diversity of environmental contexts."….

The Town chose to define "religion" very narrowly to those having a single spiritual leader and giving reverence to a supernatural power regarded as creating and governing the universe.  They have ignored another definition of religion provided within the same definition quoted above in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language which defines religion as "[a] cause, principle, or activity pursued with zeal or conscientious devotion."  In so narrowly tailoring its definition of "religion" the Town of Westmoreland discriminates against all non-theistic religions.

The court's granting of Summary Judgment, without first affording the Church of the Sword, through discovery, the ability to ascertain the aforementioned information, as well as additional information regarding the process by which the Town of Westmoreland made its decision, violates the Church of the Swords due process rights.

The Concord Monitor reported on the ongoing case back in July. They nicely summed up the shape of the controversy as seen through the eyes of the doubting:

At the Church of the Sword, where belief in a god or gods comes secondary to espousing principles of self-sufficiency and arming oneself…one of the holy texts of the 5-year-old, nontheistic, New Hampshire-born religion is Sun Tzu's Art of War.

"We believe in an active struggle against those who would deprive us of life and liberty. We believe in studying and applying the martial path in the judicial and legislative arenas, as well as in self-defense," says a sampling of the church's statement of beliefs……

"We're going to win, and we'll go to federal court immediately following, win or lose in New Hampshire," said Kevin Bloom, the church's senior pastor.

The Monitor reports 263 church members, with an average of 25 showing up at any given weekly meeting, which happen in a variety of locations, both indoors and out. For some flavor of COTS style:

Their hymns are called "jams," and in the case of the July 12 service, for lack of instruments, it was a reading from a manual on safe food preparation set to bongo drums. Their communion was hard cider, during the Ritual of Disobedience, which became a tradition after they held an early service in an East Concord park that forbade alcohol, cigarettes and firearms. "We had all those things," Bloom said.

"We only have one ritual that we borrowed from the established religious organizations, and we call it begging for money," Bloom said as he produced a pail to serve as a collection plate.

At the end, there's the Ritual of Pie, a tasty signal that the service is ending. In this case, the pie took the form of small, round lemon and raspberry tarts.

"Other religions transform wine and grape juice and bread into flesh and blood, we transmute other baked products into pie," Light said.

But above all, there's the Ritual of Combat. It's a series of sword fights with foam-covered weapons. Everyone at the service participates in at least one bout, and if they don't, they're tagged anyway in the ceremonial "slaughter of the innocents." The most challenging feat on the way to becoming a pastor is to win six of 10 duels with fighters hand-selected by the pastors.

The Monitor goes on to report on other ongoing cases of similar self-styled church's in New Hampshire with Free State Project connections whose tax position could be improved by a COTS victory in this case.

The Monitor editorialized on the case in August, and provided some interesting and relevant legal background:

Last month in Indiana, a church devoted to smoking dope, the First Church of Cannabis, won tax-exempt status from the IRS. In 2010, the Church of the IV Majesties, a Satanist group, did the same….[But the Monitor insists] The church, whose practices mimic and mock those of traditional religions, is an amusing, if sophomoric, comment on organized religion but not a church under IRS rules.

Disclosure: I have met in friendly communion with many COTS members in 2011 and interviewed them when working on my book Ron Paul's Revolution, attended a service, and was gifted with a COTS T-shirt, which I still wear occasionally.