Fw: *Sightings* 11/29/01 -- No, There Is NOT a Holy Roller Coaster
David E. Guinn
davideguinn at YAHOO.COM
Thu Nov 29 21:08:15 PST 2001
I thought the list might be interested in this. The case appears to invoke Presiding Bishops - though it might be interpreted according to the Texas sales tax. Thoughts?
----- Original Message -----
To: Recipient list suppressed
Sent: Thursday, November 29, 2001 9:53 AM
Subject: *Sightings* 11/29/01 -- No, There Is NOT a Holy Roller Coaster
No, There Is NOT a Holy Roller Coaster
-- R. Jonathan Moore
In Florida, Orange County property appraiser William Donegan wants to tax Christ's tomb. One can only assume that his position is not an elected one.
Donegan is seeking to generate revenue not just from Jesus' tomb, but also from the city of Jerusalem, the Qumran caves, and the Wilderness Tabernacle -- all elements of Orlando's biblically themed theme park Holy Land Experience (HLE). Open since February of this year -- and claiming "It's Been 2000 Years Since the World Has Seen Anything Like This!" -- Holy Land Experience has averaged around 1000 visitors per day.
The HLE first made ripples in the local pond several months ago, when Jewish groups protested that the new park and its creator, Jewish convert to Christianity and Baptist minister Marvin Rosenthal, were targeting their community for evangelism. That grumbling having subsided, the Holy Land Experience has now attracted the county assessor's attention. The organization that built and runs the HLE, Zion's Hope Inc., has an exemption from taxes, as do virtually all nonprofit religious enterprises. But Donegan believes that the HLE more closely resembles Disney World than the Sisters of Mercy. Under his plan, Zion's Hope would remain tax exempt while the HLE theme park, a $16 million-dollar, fifteen-acre facility, would be taxed like any other local entertainment venue.
At first glance Donegan's stand seems straightforward and reasonable. The HLE is "not a museum, not a school, and not a church," Donegan told the Orlando Sentinel, but a business, plain and simple. It charges admission ($17 for adults, $12 for children), it sells food and trinkets, so it must be taxed.
Zion's Hope has responded by claiming that the HLE is not Sea World. Other parks may seek to entertain, but ours is a "Bible-believing Christian ministry," Rosenthal told the Orlando Sentinel
last year. The HLE gives his organization "a wonderful opportunity to teach biblical truth" to whomever might wander through the turnstiles of this "Christ-honoring Christian venue." The Baptist minister hopes to inspire introspection, awe, reverence, and a new or renewed interest in spiritual questions. And, naturally, Rosenthal wants the HLE " to point all men to Jesus as the Lamb of God." Anyone who has visited the HLE can attest that one's senses are relentlessly confronted with an unabashedly Christocentric message.
Is the HLE truly an evangelistic ministry, or merely a new version of the Magic Kingdom, with Mickey and Minnie replaced by Mary Magdalene and a show-tune singing Roman centurion? Granted, one might struggle to find the purported evangelistic utility in wares for sale in the Old Scroll Shop or Methuselah's Mosaics. And few visitors, I think it is safe to say, have come to Jesus at the Oasis Palms Café while washing down their Goliath Burgers with Thirsty Camel Coolers.
But this only highlights the critical question in this dispute: who should decide what counts for a tax-exempt religious endeavor? If Zion's Hope loudly professes that the HLE is designed to honor the Christian savior and disseminate his message, should that be enough to satisfy the government? This would certainly keep church and state far enough from each other to honor the First Amendment's purpose. But few situations are that simple. For example, the Christian Coalition no doubt considers its political activities part of a larger Christian ministry, but most citizens are comfortable-if not grateful-that it is treated like other political lobbying organizations. How can the state keep track of religious non-profits while remaining aloof enough to avoid unconstitutionally interfering in matters of faith?
Zion's Hope has much at stake in the outcome of this dispute. Orange County has billed the organization for over $28,000 in property taxes this year, and next year, with the inclusion of new buildings and park improvements to the assessed value, the bill promises to rise sharply. Next summer the HLE plans to open a $9.5 million Scriptorium to display thousands of artifacts and manuscripts, no doubt accelerating even further the organization's potential tax bill. No wonder Rosenthal has promised to "take this to the highest court required" in order to prevail.
Zion's Hope will be assisted in pressing its case by two conservative Christian legal advocacy groups, the Liberty Counsel and the American Center for Law and Justice. Ironies abound when those dedicated to keeping government hands off religion have once again turned to an agent of the state for relief, but these well-funded and -organized groups are exactly the right allies to have in a case like this. Whether or not they can convince a judge that a theme park really isn't a theme park remains to be seen.
R. Jonathan Moore is a doctoral candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Sightings welcomes submissions of 500 to 750 words in length that seek to illuminate and interpret the forces of faith in a pluralist society. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. The editor also encourages new approaches to issues related to religion and public life.
Columns may be quoted or republished in full, with attribution to the author of the column, Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
Please send all inquiries, comments, and submissions to Jonathan Ebel, managing editor of Sightings, at jhebel at midway.uchicago.edu.
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
More information about the Religionlaw