Thomas Jefferson and Tax Exemptions for Churches
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sun Nov 04, 2007 at 10:22:40 PM EST
This is the third part of an item by item debunking of a list of claims from D. James Kennedy's sermon on "The Real Thomas Jefferson," a sermon repeated on a number of occasions between 2002 and 2007.
(Watch the Coral Ridge Hour video from March 2006 here.)

In this installment, I'll be debunking one of the most popular claims on Kennedy's list -- the claim that Thomas Jefferson exempted churches from taxation.

The following is the "Real Thomas Jefferson" list, as it appears in Kennedy's 2003 book What If America Were A Christian Nation Again? (The items that are struck out are the ones already addressed in my previous posts, On the Loss of an Historical Revisionist and The real Thomas Jefferson is the ACLU's worst nightmare?):

...even as a nominal Christian, what Thomas Jefferson did is totally antithetical to everything the ACLU and others have told the American people. For example, summing up, author Mark A. Beliles has assembled an impressive list of some of Jefferson's actions as president:
  • Promoted legislative and military chaplains
  • Established a national seal using a biblical symbol
  • Included the word God in our national motto
  • Established official days of fasting and prayer -- at least on the state level
  • Punished Sabbath breakers
  • Punished marriages contrary to biblical law
  • Punished irreverent soldiers
  • Protected the property of churches
  • Required that oaths be phrased by the words "So help me God" and be sworn on the Bible
  • Granted land to Christian churches to reach the Indians
  • Granted land to Christian schools
  • Allowed government property and facilities to be used for worship
  • Used the Bible and nondenominational religious instruction in the public schools. He was involved in three different school districts, and the plan in each required that the Bible be taught in our public schools
  • Allowed and encouraged clergymen to hold public office
  • Funded religious books for public libraries
  • Funded salaries for missionaries
  • Exempted churches from taxation
  • Established professional schools of theology. He wanted to bring the entire faculty of Calvin's theological seminary over from Geneva, Switzerland, and establish them at the University of Virginia
  • Wrote treaties requiring other nations to guarantee religious freedom, including religious speeches and prayer in official ceremonies

No, my friends, the real Thomas Jefferson is the ACLU's worst nightmare!

As mentioned in the first part of this series, D.James Kennedy did not provide any sources for his list, other than attributing the entire thing to fellow history revisionist Mark Beliles. The source cited by Beliles for the claim that Jefferson exempted churches from taxation is vague, as his sources often are. Beliles lists nothing more than the Public Statutes, "Acts of the 7th Congress." Because this is such a popular lie, however, there is no need to speculate as to which acts Beliles might be referring to.

The claim that Thomas Jefferson exempted churches from taxation is based on nothing more than two acts, both passed on May 3, 1802, that indirectly led to the exemption of church property from taxation in the District of Columbia. There was no deliberate effort on Jefferson's part to exempt churches from taxes. In fact, neither of these bills that Jefferson signed even mentioned churches.

The first is the act of Congress incorporating the City of Washington. This act stated that the corporation could tax property, the only restriction being a limit on the amount of the tax. This, of course, also meant that the corporation could decide not to tax a property. This act did not contain anything specifically about church property. It was the trustees of the city who decided to exempt this property. But, because it was the act of Congress, by saying nothing on the subject, that had given the trustees the power to not tax church property, this act is sometimes cited as a source for claims that Thomas Jefferson exempted church property from taxes. The more popular tax exemption story, however, comes from a second act, passed on the same day as the act incorporating of the City of Washington.

Gary DeMar, in his book America's Christian History, quoting a book by Robert Cord, claims:

...if Jefferson "construed the establishment clause absolutely, he violated his oath of office, his principles, and the Constitution when, in 1802, he signed into federal law tax exemption for the churches in Alexandria County Virginia."

The act referred to in this lie did not grant a tax exemption to the churches in Alexandria County. It merely gave the authority to assess and apply the existing county taxes to different officials, solving a problem created by another act passed a year earlier.

The lie is based on the fact that Alexandria County, while it was part of the District of Columbia, remained under the laws of Virginia, just as Washington County, the part of the district ceded by Maryland, remained under Maryland law. In Virginia, church property was exempt from taxes, so church property in Alexandria County remained exempt from taxes. The act of 1802 had nothing to do with what could or couldn't be taxed. This had never been changed! What had been changed, however, by an act passed in 1801, was who had the authority to assess the taxes previously assessed by the county courts of Maryland and Virginia, which had lost their jurisdiction over the territory ceded by their states. As of the same date, residents of the ceded territory were no longer subject to state taxes, but they were still subject to county taxes, which paid for things such as county roads and the support of the poor within the counties. Since the county courts of Maryland and Virginia could no longer assess these taxes, Congress had to give someone else the authority to do this. The following section of An Act supplementary to the act intituled 'An act concerning the District of Columbia,' signed by John Adams on March 3, 1801, created and gave this authority to boards of commissioners.

Sec. 4. And be it further enacted, That the magistrates, to be appointed for the said district, shall be and they are hereby constituted a board of commissioners within their respective counties, and shall possess and exercise the same powers, perform the same duties, receive the same fees and emoluments, as the levy courts or commissioners of county for the state of Maryland possess, perform and receive; and the clerks and collectors, to be by them appointed, shall be subject to the same laws, perform the same duties, possess the same powers, and receive the same fees and emoluments as the clerks and collectors of the county tax of the state of Maryland are entitled to receive.(1)

Giving these commissioners the same powers as the levy courts of Maryland worked out fine for Washington County, which had been part of Maryland. It did not, however, work well in Alexandria County, which had been part of Virginia. The act of 1802 amended this section of the act of 1801, giving Alexandria County's justices of the peace the power to assess and apply the taxes in that county in the same manner as the Virginia county courts. The following section of An Act additional to, and amendatory of, an act, intituled 'An act concerning the District of Columbia,' passed on May 3, 1802, is the sole basis of the claim that Thomas Jefferson exempted churches in Alexandria County from taxes.

Sec. 6. And be it further enacted, That the taxes to be levied in the county of Alexandria, shall hereafter be assessed by the justices of the peace of the said county, and the poor of the town and country parts of the said county of Alexandria shall be provided for respectively, in like manner as the county and corporation courts were authorized to do by the laws of Virginia, as they stood in force within the said county, on the first Monday in December, in the year one thousand eight hundred.(2)

The misconception that, by this act of 1802, Congress adopted the Virginia tax code, thereby exempting church property at that time, began in 1970, when Chief Justice Warren Burger, in Walz v. Tax Commission of New York, misinterpreted this act's sixth section.

According to Chief Justice Burger:

It is significant that Congress, from its earliest days, has viewed the Religion Clauses of the Constitution as authorizing statutory real estate tax exemption to religious bodies. In 1802 the 7th Congress enacted a taxing statute for the County of Alexandria, adopting the 1800 Virginia statutory pattern which provided tax exemptions for churches.

Chief Justice Burger's erroneous statement works out very well for the Liars for Jesus, because the date of 1802 makes this a story about their favorite target, Thomas Jefferson.

Robert Cord, in his 1982 book Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction, quoted Chief Justice Burger's statement, then commented:

The Chief Justice could also have noted, but did not, that Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, did not veto this federal law on the assumption that it was or created "an establishment of religion" forbidden by the First Amendment. In fact, Jefferson signed it.

And, the claim that Thomas Jefferson exempted churches from taxation has appeared, in one form or another, in nearly every Christian nationalist revisionist history book since.


1. Richard Peters, ed., The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, vol. 2, (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1845), 115.
2. ibid., 194.




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When we discuss about Thomas Jefferson, there is a lot to share. But I am not going for that now. According to this article, I think it is very helpful to know the details of tax exemptions for churches clearly. Just go through this article and write down your views here!

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