Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York

RESPONDENT: Tax Comm'n of the City of New York
LOCATION: New York City Tax Commission

DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1969-1970)

CITATION: 397 US 664 (1970)
ARGUED: Nov 19, 1969
DECIDED: May 04, 1970

Facts of the case

Frederick Walz, the owner of real estate in Richmond County, New York, brought suit against the New York City Tax Commission, challenging property tax exemptions for churches. Walz alleged that the exemptions forced him, as a taxpayer, to indirectly contribute to those churches.


Did the property tax exemptions violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Media for Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 19, 1969 in Walz v. Tax Comm'n of the City of New York

Warren E. Burger:

Number 135, Walz against the Tax Commission.

Mr. Ennis you may proceed whenever you are ready.

Edward J. Ennis:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court.

This is an appeal from a final order of the Court of Appeals of the State of New York, affirming an order for summary judgment obtained by the defendant, dismissing the complaint which asserts that the plaintiff, appellant here, is a citizen and a real estate taxpayer, who sought in adjudication that the constitutional and statutory provisions of the State in New York, which exempt from real estate taxation all the property of religious corporations used solely for religious purposes violates the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

He asserts in his complaint that he's a Christian not a member of any particular sect, and objects that the amount by which his taxes, his real estate taxes are increased by the exemption of all religiously owned property for use of religious purposes from taxations, constitutes an involuntary contribution by him to the activities of these religious organizations which violates his freedom of religion.

Before taking up my main argument which will be very brief because the principle that I assert is very simple, I would like to address one word to corporation counsel's suggestion in the first point of his brief that the Court should either dismiss or affirm this appeal on the ground that the record is inadequate.

We submit to the Court that all of the facts required for a decision of this issue no matter how momentous it maybe, are present either in the pleadings or in the facts which are judicial notice.

It was the defendant who moved for summary judgment and the facts were quite sufficient to obtain a judgment of the Court of Appeals in favor of the defendant.

And the defendant is not in a good position here to assert that the facts are not sufficient for review by this Court.

The -- all of the facts required for decision are present.

Potter Stewart:

Mr. Ennis, before you proceed with your argument, I'm a little curious about the whereabouts of the plaintiff in this case.

I refer particularly to VI of the appendix of the amicus brief of Mrs. Madelyn Murray O'Hare, in which it's indicated that the post office couldn't find Mr. Walz.

Edward J. Ennis:

Well --

Potter Stewart:

Did somebody else sign for this --

Edward J. Ennis:

Well, let me tell you what I know.

Potter Stewart:

-- registered letter.

I wonder if he still--

Edward J. Ennis:

Mr. Walz is a member of the New York bar, and he's taken the case to this stage and intended to argue the case.

He requested me to argue it and present his position in his behalf because he happens to be suffering from a very high blood pressure and frankly, he stated that he did not think that he emotionally could undertake the responsibility to present the oral argument to this Court.

I've known Mr. -- I know Mr. Walz, he's been in my office several times and I can communicate with him anytime I wish.

I mean --

Potter Stewart:

That satisfies my question, I just wondered if he was still around.

Edward J. Ennis:

And now, going to the merits of the argument, I do not intend to quote to this Court much of what had it said in the over 500 pages that the Court has written between Gobitis and Flast on the question of the meaning of the First Amendment.

I think it appropriate however that we approach our argument with the statement made by Mr. Justice Jackson speaking for the Court in the Barnett case which established that this flag salute have violated the First Amendment.

Now Mr. Justice Jackson for the Court stated that the task of translating the majestic generalities of the Bill of Rights conceived as part of the pattern of liberal government in the 18th Century into concrete restraints on officials dealing with problems of the 20th Century is one to disturb the self confidence.

These changed conditions from the laissez faire situation in the 18th Century for the government control of our century, often deprived precedence of reliability and cast us more than we would choose on our own judgment, but we act in these matters not by authority of our confidence, but by force of our commissions.

We cannot because of modest testaments of our confidence in such specialties as public education withhold the judgment that history authenticates as the function of this Court when liberty is infringed.

Approaching this question, it is the appellant's submission that the plain words, the first ten words of the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights that Congress, which now includes the states, shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion bars all age religion including the massive tax exemption from real estate taxes presented in this case.

I will not pause to lead the Court again as it has gone through its opinions through the course in the first Congress which produced these general words respecting an establishment of religion.

It is suffice to say that out of the narrower words introduced into the House, no law establishing religion and out of the still narrow words introduced into the Senate, no law establishing articles of faith.