The state of New York has foreclosed on a virulently anti-LGBT church in New York City. DNAInfo New York reports that Atlah Worldwide Church and its pastor, the Rev. James Manning, owe $194,000 for unpaid water bills.
That’s not Manning’s only debt: In his capacity as Atlah’s pastor, he owes the state more than $28,000 for other bills. There are also nine federal tax liens against him in excess of $355,000, and he owes private creditors at least $30,000. Manning failed to meet an April 2015 deadline to pay the debt.
“I assure you, it’s about a water bill and a tax that can’t be levied against this church,” he told DNAInfo. “I think it’s a land grab, quite frankly.”
Manning told press that the church’s tax exemption means it can legally refrain from paying its water and sewage bills. The state clearly disagrees, and Manning’s unlikely to successfully appeal the foreclosure in court.
But don’t expect the Religious Right to adopt his case as their latest cause célèbre. Manning is internationally famous (or infamous, if you prefer) for displaying vicious hate messages on Atlah’s sign. “Jesus would stone homos, stoning is still the law!” it once read. Another: “The homo demons have metastasized in Harlem restaurants [and] possibly transmit sexual disease.”
His sermons, which he often posts on You Tube, aren’t much better. Last August, he announced from the pulpit that Starbucks used semen to flavor its drinks. “Now, this is the absolute truth,” he said.
Even the Religious Right has its limits.
Better days may be ahead for Atlah’s beleaguered neighbors. Two pro-LGBT rights organizations have begun raising money to purchase Atlah’s property at auction. The Ali Forney Center, which works to house homeless LGBT youth, has raised $200,000 so far to buy the church.
“We ask our kids why they weren’t safe in their homes. … The No. 1 reason is because of the hostile religious beliefs of their parents,” Carl Siciliano, Ali Forney’s executive director, told the Associated Press.
Rivers of Living Waters, an LGBT-affirming church in Harlem, has also indicated it wants to buy the building.
“We believe divine justice can transform a place of hatred in our community to a place of love and life. That is the reason we are seeking the funds to purchase the building,” its pastor, Vanessa Brown, told the Guardian. Brown’s church currently meets in the basement of a nearby Methodist church; Atlah’s building could become its first permanent home.
Manning is powerless to prevent either entity from buying the property. He is predictably apoplectic. In his latest video, he warned both groups they would – somehow – be unable to occupy the building. “This ain’t no bathhouse, this ain’t no [expletive deleted] house, this is the Lord’s house!” he screamed.
Manning has a constitutional right to spew anti-gay venom. But that doesn't mean he gets to refuse to pay his bills, and he has no one but himself to blame for his troubles. The state arguably extended more grace to him than he’s ever shown toward LGBT people. Officials first filed suit against the minister in 2009; he’s had ample time to pay his debt. As a church, Atlah also enjoyed tax-exempt status, and DNAInfo reports that it received approximately $186,000 a year in benefits related to that status.
Americans United reported Manning to the IRS in 2008 after he preached a series of sermons urging his flock to oppose Barack Obama’s campaign for president. It’s unclear if the IRS ever took action.
When the IRS refuses to enforce its own church politicking regulations, individuals like Manning are effectively free to abuse tax-exempt status at will. It'll be poetic justice if an LGBT group replaces Manning's church.