Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity v. Tax Commission of the City of New York (1982)

This Unification Church case established a firm principle that government and courts must avoid imposing their own definitions of what is a religion or what are its proper doctrines and practices. The Church applied for tax exemption of three properties to the Tax Commission of the City of New York. The Commission denied the application on the grounds that the Church was “threaded with political motives” and thus was not entitled to tax exemption as a religious institution.

On appeal, the Church argued that it is often impossible to separate political and religious motives, that throughout history churches have been associated with what easily qualify as political action and motives, and that the Tax Commission holding could be used to disqualify numerous if not all churches depending on the motives of the commissioners. The New York Court of Appeals (the highest level court in New York) ruled in the Church’s favor, stating that “it is not the province of civil authorities to indulge in such distillation as to what is to be denominated religious and what political or economic. It is for religious bodies themselves, rather than the courts or administrative agencies, to define, by their teachings and activities, what their religion is.”