Harsher Penalties for Church Property Vandals

Court rules Florida law is acceptable.

Church Law and Tax 1996-03-01

Church Property

Key point. State laws imposing harsher penalties upon crimes committed in churches than in other locations do not impermissibly prefer churches in violation of the first amendment’s “nonestablishment of religion” clause.

A Florida court upheld a state law imposing harsher penalties upon persons who damage church property than other kinds of property. A defendant was convicted of defacing church properties by spray—painting them with anti—religious symbols and words. His sentence was harsher because state law imposed increased penalties upon those who deface religious property. The defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that the state law unconstitutionally favored religion. A state court rejected this argument and upheld the validity of the law. The court applied the United States Supreme Court’s three—part Lemon test for determining whether or not the Florida law constituted an impermissible establishment of religion. Under this test, first announced in a 1971 decision (Lemon v. Kurtzman), a law or government practice challenged as an establishment of religion will be valid only if it satisfies the following three conditions—a secular purpose, a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion, and no excessive entanglement between church and state. The court concluded that the Florida law met all three tests. As to the first test, the court noted that the purpose of the law was not to advance religion but rather to deter incidents of vandalism occurring in places of worship and cemeteries. Second, the Florida law’s primary effect neither advanced nor inhibited religion. Any “benefit” to religion under the law was indirect and insignificant. Third, the law did not result in an excessive entanglement between church and state since it did not involve “comprehensive, discriminating and continuing state surveillance” or “administration of religious activities.”

The court also rejected the defendant’s claim that the Florida law violated the constitutional guaranty of “equal protection of the laws” by treating vandalism to church property differently from damage to other kinds of property. The court observed that states may treat criminals differently so long as the classifications are reasonable. The court concluded that this test was met, since the state clearly had a legitimate interest in deterring crime, especially when crimes involving defacement of religious properties and cemeteries was on the rise. Todd v. State, 643 So.2d 625 (Fla. App. 1 Dist. 1994). [ Corporations—Property, The Establishment Clause]

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