In a recent article entitled, "Another Church Takes a Hit from the U.S." The WINDS described the pre-dawn raid by Oregon State Police, City of Salem SWAT Team and the Oregon Army National Guard on a small, peaceful church near Sublimity, Oregon. During the raid (which involved a National Guard light armored vehicle [LAV], a treaded, tank-like machine with gunports), the church's land, vehicles and personal possessions from the parsonage were seized, apparently illegally, for non-payment of property taxes. On May 23, 1997 the State of Oregon, Marion County, placed on auction that land confiscated from the Embassy of Heaven Church in January of this year.
This and other recent developments have been brought to the attention of The WINDS, along with copies of official documents from Marion County and the Oregon State Governor's office, that reveal a considerable depth of complicity in the governmental oppression of this small church.
Of the twelve individuals attending the auction for the purpose of bidding on the property, eleven refused to enter bids after being informed by Embassy of Heaven members that the land is the property of a church and, therefore, the county is forbidden by law to seize, tax or even assess it. According to witnesses, the gavel closing the auction was about to fall when the twelfth person entered the minimum bid of $119,000 and was subsequently awarded ownership of the property.
During the initial raid several laws were apparently violated by participating officials. Foremost among them was the Posse Comatatus Act (18 United States Code, Sec. 1385) made law following the Civil War. Posse Comatatus forbids any use of U.S. military forces against United States citizens. The Office of Legal Counsel for Marion County informed The WINDS that Posse Comatatus was not a factor since "the Oregon National Guard was not involved." According to a copy of an official document obtained by this office, Gary R. Allen, Colonel, Oregon Army National Guard states, in reference to their "support to Marion County's eviction action at the Embassy of Heaven property:"
"The Oregon National Guard made available one LAV and a crew of two men pursuant to a request from the Salem Police Department to support the Marion County Sheriff. We coordinated the action with and obtained approval from the Oregon State Police." (emphasis supplied)
Posse Comatatus is a simple, one-paragraph, fifty-two word law that states:
"Whoever, except in cases and under circumstances expressly authorized by the Constitution or act of Congress, willfully uses any part of the Army or the Air Force as a posse comitatus or otherwise to execute the laws shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than two years, or both."
At present legal research indicates that Congress, as yet, has not expanded posse comatatus to include military action against churches. Officially the military has been used in domestic drug interdiction. That's why they call it the "war on drugs." Drugs, however, were never an issue with the Embassy of Heaven. The copy of the official request form, obtained by this writer, used to secure the services of Army National Guard personnel and the light-armored vehicle for the raid against the church, states at the head of the document, "OREGON COUNTER DRUG MISSION REQUEST FORM". In handwritten language on the completed form it is indicated that the "mission" was not drug related.
Because the land, its structures and most of the vehicles on it were property of a legally established church, all action by law enforcement personnel, it appears, was made illegal by even the most narrow interpretation of the constitution's First Amendment. Even if the seizure were of property not belonging to a church but of only a private individual, the confiscation of personal property, such as clothes, toilet articles, computers, etc., generally anything not a structure or vehicle, would have been clearly illegal by state law. As it was, church members were allowed to leave with only the clothes they were wearing. Their personal property was not returned to them for over two months following the raid, necessitating the pastor's family, residents of the parsonage, to live at the largess of neighbors and friends.
In contention was the Embassy of Heaven's attempt to gain exempt status for relief from property tax burden. Marion County's tax assessor denied the church the exemption claiming that they had not provided his office with sufficient information to qualify. Embassy of Heaven pastor, Paul Revere, claims that at no time during the church's numerous inquiries did the assessor inform them as to what information he required to complete the exemption process. Pastor Revere also stated that they were never denied their petition for exemption. They were simply given no reason by the county for not granting it. The county's legal office claims that "...it's not the assessor's job to go out and figure out how your property is exempt from taxation." This begs the question, if not the assessor, whose job was it ? Perhaps that is why they could not inform Pastor Revere as to the reason they would not grant the exemption.
In a letter to the Embassy of Heaven the Oregon Department of Revenue officially stated that, "Our job is to determine the existence of a religious organization...." In another letter from head Marion County Counsel, Michael Hansen, Mr. Hansen affirmed that, "States and counties are forbidden from...interfering with church...organization." A question of logic then arises as to how the state can dictate by law what constitutes the "existence of a religious organization" without, in fact, "interfering with church...organization."
As to the determination of the "existence of a religious organization" the Oregon Revised Statutes (307.140 & 307.162) addressing that matter are clear and difficult to misunderstand. Simply stated the law requires only a formal notification to the county that your organization is a church in order to qualify for relief of property tax burden.
Also included in the Deptartment of Revenue's letter to the Embassy of Heaven was the statement that it "does not question the legitimacy of any religious organization." If the department, in fact, "does not question the legitimacy of any religious organization," this seems to create a severe uncertainty as to where lies the grounds for denial of the church's request for tax exemption. Also, is not the right to legally determine the "existence of a religious organization" the same as the power and right to determine the "legitimacy of any religious organization"? The county's statement appears to amount to a usurpation of unconstitutional authority over "an establishment of religion."
In The WINDS interview with the Office of Legal Counsel for Marion County, one of the attorneys directly involved in the dispute with the Embassy of Heaven informed this reporter that the burden of proof as to a church's existence and legitimacy lies with the petitioner--in this case the Embassy of Heaven. In the aforementioned Oregon Revised Statues no language is extant within those statutes placing any burden of proof upon the petitioner. Even the United States Internal Revenue Service typically does not require a burden of proof when dealing with a church and levies no taxes against them. The IRS's attitude, expressed in an interview with one of The WINDS staff, was that they generally leave churches pretty much alone.
This office asked the county attorney whether the forcible levying, by law, of property taxes upon a church would not logically violate the United States Constitution's First Amendment which states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." Is not a property tax a law? The attorney replied that treating religious organizations the same as all secular organizations is not a violation of the First Amendment and that tax exemption is a "special privilege" not a right. Again one can properly ask the question that if what Marion County says is true, of what value is the First Amendment? Does it not clearly delineate the constitution's posture toward religions as being fundamentally different from "all other organizations"? Did the Founding Fathers not place the amendment as the first of ten in the Bill of Rights thus intending to communicate its paramount importance? In response to these and other questions, the county attorney expressed that she had "neither the time nor the inclination to argue constitutional matters."
In their decision making the State of Oregon and Marion County, both in their documents and telephone interviews, continually emphasized their hands-off approach when it comes to the exercise of any religious or doctrinal beliefs. They claim that:
"The department [of Revenue], in its role as a fact finder in the context of religious exemption appeals, does not question the legitimacy of any religious organization. Our job is not to decide whether we agree with or accept any religious beliefs."
First of all, if they do not "question the legitimacy of any religious organization," again the question arises, where are their grounds for denial of Embassy of Heaven's tax relief? Is it not in their questioning of the church's legitimacy? Secondly, in their official statements, another question is evident, why such emphasis placed on the obvious? Any government organization knows, as do nearly all citizens, the legal hornet's nest that would await any governmental organization foolish enough to attempt such an act as to decide whether they "agree with or accept any religious beliefs"--at least at this time in our nation's history. The logical conclusion presents itself that it may be that they focus on the second half of the First Amendment guarantee against laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion while diverting attention away from the first part prohibiting laws "respecting an establishment of religion."
The county's arguments seem to take on the character of a slight puff of wind directed to the side of a flying arrow. Just a miniscule deflection from the true topic is sufficient to cause a major departure from the target or focus of attention. They will address a portion of the dispute with just a seemingly minor change of subject, drawing one's attention to how they do not interfere with the church's right to believe whatever religious doctrine one desires--a matter which has never yet come into contest. According to Embassy of Heaven officials, they have never charged Marion County with any attempt to determine the legitimacy of church beliefs or doctrinal position. This presents a question as to why the focus on that aspect when it has not been presented by the church as a point in question? Is it that the county attorneys desire to load their communications with an image of themselves as truly unbiased, secular guardians of the second part of the First Amendment's position on religious freedom, while diverting attention away from that part guaranteeing a church's freedom from unreasonable laws?
Apparent attempts to vilify the Embassy of Heaven and its Pastor, Paul Revere, are illustrated in a copy of an official police report obtained by The WINDS. Marion County Sheriff's Detective, Sergeant Duane Fletchall describes engaging Pastor Revere in apparently casual conversation, an occurrence Revere said was frequent and ostensibly just a series of friendly chats. Sgt. Fletchall, in his official report, stated, "Revere and I were talking about his travels. Revere said he has been to Alabama, Arizona (Phoenix specifically), and Southern California on survival expos trying to advertise himself and the church." From this discussion, ignoring the fact, Revere points out, that he has also been to health expos and any other forum where he is allowed to preach about the Kingdom of Heaven, Sgt. Fletchall concludes, "To me this shows a draw or pulling together of malacia, [sic] [militia] extreme or right wing activities in the church." He arrives at this conclusion knowing, according to Revere, that the only weapon in the church's possession is a small, bolt-action .22 caliber rifle for use against predators such as coyotes and skunks.
In the previously quoted letter from Marion County's head attorney in which he claims, "There is no attempt here to exert authority over church doctrine or belief," Mr. Hansen makes reference to the "parable" of Jesus about rendering "unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's." He calls into question Pastor Revere's interpretation of the scripture stating, "He and I have a disagreement about how to interpret that parable. Mr. Revere believes that he can take unilateral action and render nothing to 'Caesar'. I suggest that the Embassy of Heaven properties, being physically located in the state of Oregon and Marion County, must render some things unto 'Caesar'. Among those things are taxes, unless the Embassy of Heaven can qualify for an exemption pursuant to the rules laid down by 'Caesar'."
Concerning the rendering unto Caesar what is his, as per the First Amendment, nothing of the church's belongs to 'Caesar'. Pastor Revere asks, how then does 'Caesar' require the Embassy of Heaven to pursue recognition by Marion County for the purpose of making them something that they already are--a church?
It has been said that a lawyer's job is to describe the truth without revealing it. The Scriptures call such activities "guile". It is interesting that the word comes from a Greek root meaning to decoy or deceive with subtlety.
"For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile." 1 Peter 3:10.
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