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City Can Assess Utility Fee to Churches for Fire Prevention Costs

Fee covers expense of a service, court says.

Key point: A city's attempt to recover the cost of providing water for public fire protection by adding a fee to utility bills may be applied to churches without violating the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom.

• A Wisconsin court ruled that a city could assess a fee against all utility customers, including churches, to pay for the cost of providing water in the event of a fire.. The city provides water services as a public utility under state law, and is authorized to recover its costs by charging each utility customer a fee based on property value. The city simply adds the fee to each customer's water bill. A church refused to pay the additional fee, arguing that it amounted to an unconstitutional "tax" on religion in violation of the first amendment. A trial court disagreed, and its decision was affirmed on appeal. The appeals court observed that "the primary purpose ...

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Posted:
  • January 2, 1995