After Us, the Flood?
As of a few months ago, about 30 churches in Prince George’s County, Maryland, have applied for a reduction on a controversial “stormwater remediation fee” the county imposes on property owners — private, commercial and nonprofit, including churches.
The amount of the fee is based on the acreage of each property, and without the discount, some churches are liable for hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
More specifically, the fee, which was authorized by the Maryland state legislature in 2013 and applies to all 23 of the state’s counties, is assessed according to the amount of impervious surface on each property — the ground covered by solid material such as blacktop or concrete that blocks stormwater from being absorbed by the soil beneath. With the water not soaked up and filtered bpy the ground, it flows into storm sewers and streams where it eventually is conveyed to the Chesapeake Bay, carrying pollution with it.
The legislation authorized each jurisdiction to determine its own fee structure. The money is intended to fund capital projects in each county to capture more stormwater, curb runoff and improve water quality. For the average homeowner in Prince George’s County, the fee amounts to about $42 annually.
Churches, however, especially those with large lots and sprawling parking lots, would have to pay more — estimated at $744 annually on average. The county’s churches have some of the largest properties in the jurisdiction.
Initially, there were no discounts available, but several of the pastors in Prince George’s challenged the fee and were able to negotiate a reduction for religious organizations and other 501(c) nonprofits if certain “alternative compliance” conditions were met.
According to the document spelling out the agreement those alternatives include:
1) providing temporary easements “for the County to install Best Management Practices on property owned by the organization” with the organization maintaining those practices;
2) outreach and education, where the property owner “agrees to take part in the County’s outreach/education campaign to encourage other property owners to participate in the County’s Rain Check Rebate Program for restoration, and create an environmental green team or ministry”;
3) “Green Care and Good Housekeeping,” where the property owner “agrees to use lawn management companies that are certified in the proper use and application of fertilizers in connection with their green areas and lawns. Property owner also agrees to good housekeeping practices for ensuring clean lots.”
The first alternative gives a 50 percent reduction in the fee. The second and third options each yield a 25 percent fee reduction. Thus, if a church or nonprofit participates fully in all three, that organization can have the entire fee waived.
Forestville New Redeemer Baptist Church was the first to apply. That congregation plans to install rain barrels, build rain gardens (a shallow, planted depression that absorbs the water that flows from roofs, patios or yards, allowing it to drain directly into the soil), plant trees and possibly replace its blacktop with a permeable material. And the government will cover most of the cost of these changes.
Some of the congregations have chosen to launch “green” ministries (such as recycling programs), and some pastors have opted to preach sermons on environmental stewardship.
There have been criticisms of the stormwater remediation fee, with some opponents calling it a “rain tax.” There have also been claims from others that the fee-reduction program interferes with church-state separation. At least one critic has treated the “green” sermons as though they are a government requirement to get the reduction, with the government taking over the pulpit.
It’s more likely, however, that these sermons are simply the way some pastors have chosen to educate their congregations on environmental issues in keeping with the “outreach and education” goal of the alternative compliance agreement. There are no government-mandated sermons, though some sort of environment education in the church is called for to receive the full deduction.
For now let’s not dwell on the First Amendment but rather on the question of our own green faith initiative.
Some questions to consider:
1. Why is “creation care” a growing movement in many religious circles today — even where no fee-reduction incentive exists? Discuss both positive and negative aspects of this sort of movement. What kind of environmental activity is appropriate for congregations?
2. Should care for the earth, the stewardship of God’s creation, be one of the marks of our temple? Why or why not?
3. How should our understanding of the future of our planet affect our personal spiritual life?
An important verse to consider:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” (For context, read 1:1-31; 2:15.)
The story of creation in Genesis is actually an amalgam of two accounts, Genesis 1:1–2:4a being an orderly seven-day account while Genesis 2:4b-25 is a more narrative story. Common to both, however, is God’s command to the first humans to have “dominion” over the plants and animals (1:26, 28) and to “till” and “keep” the earth (2:15). While “dominion” has often been a word used to promote a more consumptive approach to the earth’s resources, the context suggests wise stewardship. It also indicates that the creation is to be used for the benefit of humankind, producing the necessities of life. Human beings were created to be God’s representatives in creation and thus were commanded to rule and care for the natural world in the way that God rules, remembering that God repeatedly called creation “good.”
Likewise, in the second creation account, the command to “till,” or cultivate, the earth is instructive. The Hebrew word translated as “till” literally means “to work.” Humans are to see themselves as being in service to the earth because they are fully dependent upon its resources to sustain life and make a living. “Dominion” and dependence are thus parallel, and not opposite, roles that humans play in relationship to the earth. When we care for the earth as stewards of God’s good creation, we are engaging in an act of worship to God.
Questions: How do you define and practice “dominion” over the earth and its resources? Do you believe that environmental issues are really, at base, spiritual issues? Why or why not? Where do environmental groups and congregations have intersecting values? Where do Jewish interests and ecological ones diverge?
Another Bible verse to ponder:
2 Kings 20:19
Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days?” (For context read 2 Kings 20:12-21.)
King Hezekiah showed the wealth, strengths and weaknesses of his kingdom to foreign spies. When he was told that his actions would lead to the ruin of the kingdom, but that it would not happen until after he died, this was his response. Some would liken it to the phrase Après moi, le déluge — “After me, the flood” — supposedly spoken by King Louis XV of France, although it is unlikely he ever said it. Louis XV was a governmentally astute king who worked hard to stave off disasters in his kingdom. Thus, the sense of “I’m doing my best, but when I’m gone: disaster.” However, many in popular writing have taken the phrase to mean “As long as disaster strikes after I die, what does it matter?”
Some people do act as if what happens to the earth after they are gone doesn’t matter. Some may tie this attitude to their own belief that the world may not last beyond their own lives to the lives of their grandchildren.
Questions: Do we feel a responsibility about the quality of creation you leave behind for your children and grandchildren? On what basis (theological, political, scientific or a combination of all or some of these) do we and your fellow members take a fact-based or politically based viewpoint on issues of care for creation, climate change and stewardship of the earth?
We do not have to be hardcore environmentalists to see this link. When basic morality is ignored, not merely the people but the whole land suffers.
I am grateful to the Wired Word for help in preparing these remarks.