Texas Appellate Court Grants New Trial in Battle Over City’s Unlawful Attempt to Skirt Due Process, Tax Laws

First Liberty Institute defends three churches on appeal against Texas city’s unfair water fee scheme


AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 18, 2020 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Today, the Texas Third District Court of Appeals in Austin affirmed a lower court decision granting a new trial for three churches that filed a lawsuit against efforts by the City of Magnolia to impose a water fee scheme on tax-exempt churches without due process. First Liberty Institute and the law firm Baker Botts represent Magnolia Bible Church, Magnolia’s First Baptist Church, and Believers Fellowship.

“Our clients are pleased that they will get their day in court,” said Hiram Sasser, Executive General Counsel at First Liberty Institute. “We are grateful to the court for recognizing that cities in Texas at least have to give due process to churches before imposing their water fee schemes. Churches and non-profits in Magnolia were granted a new trial because the court realized that the city of Magnolia should have at least given these churches an opportunity to challenge the city’s water fee scheme in court.”  

In March of 2018 the City of Magnolia, Texas increased the water and wastewater fees of its churches to significantly higher rates than that of commercial businesses. As Magnolia’s city administrator Paul Mendes said, the water fee scheme, “would allow the city to collect funds from these entities in place of taxes or other fees.” In one case, a church’s water bill increased 178% for similar water usage.   

Unbeknownst to the churches, as they continued to challenge the water fee scheme locally, in November of 2018, city officials quietly sought approval for Magnolia’s water fee scheme several hours away from Magnolia in an Austin courtroom. Only when the churches sued Magnolia in May of 2019 did they learn that Magnolia’s efforts in Austin now prevented them from challenging the water fee scheme. In response to the churches’ lawsuit, Magnolia officials threatened sanctions against the pastors if they continued.

In August of 2019, attorneys with First Liberty convinced the Austin-based court that previously validated Magnolia’s water fee scheme to re-open the proceedings concerning the legitimacy of the rate increase, finding that city officials should have known that the churches were an interested party, and failed to involve them in the rate increase discussion. The Texas Third Court of Appeals in Austin heard oral argument in March over Magnolia’s appeal.

About First Liberty Institute
First Liberty Institute is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at media@firstliberty.org or by calling 972-941-4453.