To the surprise of absolutely no one outside the political class in Sacramento, a majority of residents in California have already or are seriously considering fleeing the state.
A recent poll by the UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found more than half of Californians surveyed had considered leaving. The most common reasons cited were housing costs, high taxes, and the political climate.
While those three factors are inextricably linked they share another common connection, possibly overlooked, that if allowed to flourish, could help alleviate the state’s fiscal crises – religious liberty. By embracing the role of religion in a free society instead of seeking to confine it to the hearts, minds, pulpits, and pews of the faithful, California might stem the flow of people, jobs, and revenue to other states.
Much of the tax burden born by Californians is allocated toward dealing with social ills that churches, ministries, and faith-based nonprofits are dedicated to relieving. Poverty, homelessness, addiction, to name a few. Yet, the political climate expressed by the California legislature is overtly hostile to people of faith.
The recently passed ACR 99 requested religious leaders and those with “moral influence” to abandon two millennia of Judeo-Christian doctrine on human sexuality/gender and affirm behaviors most religious faiths eschew. This after a controversial bill just last year labeled some religious viewpoints on human sexuality as “consumer fraud.”
Welcoming and tolerant California is not. But while California may be the nation’s leading exporter of prosperity, it is not alone in failing to recognize the economic short-sightedness of religious hostility.
In major cities and small towns all over the nation government officials are opposing churches and faith-based organizations and their attempts to serve local communities, often due to a mistaken notion of lost revenue because of the tax exempt status of these ministries.
In Magnolia, Texas, a suburb of Houston, the City Council imposed a new set of water rates for churches and non-profits nearly tripling their cost of water in order to “recoup lost revenue” because the city is prevented from taxing their property.
In the village of Walthill, Nebraska, government officials have denied building permits to Light of the World Gospel Ministries who purchased property in the crumbling downtown area to build a new church and other facilities to breathe life, spiritually and economically, into a dying community.
In Joseph, Oregon, Point of Connection Ministries, which provides transformational housing, counseling, and job training for men seeking to successfully transition back into society, faced similar obstruction from county government related to zoning ordinances. In a place where winter can be deadly, this ministry was nearly forced to close its doors to men in need of shelter.
In Dallas, Texas, Congregation Toras Chaim spent over five years entangled in municipal red tape over a certificate of occupancy for the home of a local rabbi, the leader of the small Orthodox Jewish community. He simply wanted to host his fellow congregants in his home for worship. The final bureaucratic hurdle? Requiring a specific number of parking spaces for an Orthodox Jewish congregation that, on the Sabbath, when the rabbi’s home would have the most visitors, abstain from driving.
In these and other cases, my colleagues at First Liberty Institute continue fighting for the rights of Americans of all faiths to live accordingly.
A common value shared by many if not all faiths is to care for those in need. When people of faith are free to live out their beliefs in all aspects of their lives as the First Amendment guarantees, they inevitably seek to make life better for others. These benevolent efforts reduce the strain on government resources. A 2012 study by Dr. Rodney Stark of Baylor University found the savings to taxpayers nationwide from benevolent actions of religious people and organizations totaled over $2 trillion per year. More recent global studies show a correlation between religious freedom and prosperity of nations.
Our nation is founded on the idea that the purpose of government is to protect the God-given rights of the people. The Founders knew people of all faiths or no faith would benefit by the beneficent zeal of a religiously diverse society. If those in positions of power today are unmoved by the Constitutional arguments to protect religious liberty, perhaps the economic benefits might be more persuasive.
It simply makes dollars and sense. California, it seems, could use a lot more of both.
(Lathan Watts is Director of Legal Communications for First Liberty Institute, the nation’s largest non-profit law firm and think tank exclusively dedicated to preserving religious liberty for all Americans, and a Regional Fellow of National Review Institute. Learn more at firstliberty.org.)