Sometimes it feels hard to find comparable biblical language for present-day political problems. But Scripture speaks directly to one current US Supreme Court case—Tyler v. Hennepin County, for which oral arguments are scheduled to begin in late April. To put it bluntly: The state of Minnesota “devour[s] widows’ houses” (Luke 20:47). Its handling of property tax debt is defrauding “laborers of their wages” and oppressing “the widows and the fatherless” (Mal. 3:5).
The case’s plaintiff is Geraldine Tyler, a 94-year-old widow and resident of Minneapolis. In 2010, she moved out of her one-bedroom condo because she felt unsafe in her neighborhood after a shooting. She couldn’t afford both the rent on her new apartment and the condo’s property taxes and left $2,300 in taxes unpaid.
Hennepin County, in cooperation with the state of Minnesota, added around $13,000 in penalties and fees, giving her a $15,000 bill she could not afford to pay. She forfeited her condo, but when the state sold it for $40,000, Minnesota didn’t just take the $15,000 it said Tyler owed. It kept the full sale price and left her with nothing.
Minnesota isn’t unusual as a state that permits this kind of taking, as Reason magazine (where I am a contributor) has reported. About a dozen states have similar laws. Some are even crueler than the Minnesota rule.
In Nebraska, for example, “People who fall behind on their property taxes are bought out, without their knowledge, by private investors,” Reason’s Billy Binion explains. They receive no correspondence until three years later, at which point they have just 90 days to pay their back taxes, 14 percent interest, and all associated fees—or lose everything to the investors.
And Tyler’s case isn’t an anomaly. People who fall behind on their property taxes are often experiencing some extenuating circumstance, like sudden job loss or severe illness. They’re frequently elderly, as it’s easier to rack up tax debt unaware if a resident owns a home outright and has no mortgage servicer automatically collecting property taxes.
The District of Columbia had to pay about $1 million in 2017, for instance, to settle a class-action suit brought by residents who lost their homes over what were often quite small tax debts.
In one particularly egregious case, the city sold the home of 76-year-old Bennie Coleman to a private investor over a $134 debt. The investor in turn sold the house for $71,000 and evicted Coleman, a widower with dementia who had nowhere else to live. He spent months living on the front porch, The Washington Post reported, believing he’d accidentally locked himself out and asking emergency responders to help him get back inside.
Tax forfeiture, though ethically fraught, is standard practice. What isn’t standard is what Minnesota, Nebraska, and other states are doing—nor are the ethics complicated. It’s merciless and unjust for the government to take vulnerable people’s life savings in the form of their home equity to service a much smaller debt.
Tyler’s case should be an easy decision for the Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. The Constitution’s Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment “would be a dead letter if a state could simply exclude from its definition of property any interest that the state wished to take,” wrote judge Raymond Kethledge of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in his decision on a similar case in Michigan in 2022.
Michigan lost, and Minnesota should lose too. Tyler’s contention is not that she and others in her position should be excused from paying their debts—though maybe there’s a biblical case to be made for that as well (Deut. 24:6, 17).
She’s not asking for partiality or special treatment (Deut. 1:17), only to not be exploited because she is poor (Prov. 22:22). Denying justice to the poor is deplorable, and it’s particularly unbecoming of the justice system.
The best-case conclusion for Geraldine Tyler’s ordeal is that it ends this practice altogether. But failing that, the local church can imitate God in being “a defender of widows” (Ps. 68:5) and consider targeted debt relief in their neighborhoods, as some churches do with medical debt.
We can’t expect to eliminate poverty or injustice before “God’s new world of justice and joy” is fully realized, as N. T. Wright has written, but “we are called to bring forth real and effective signs” of that renewal now. We can cover debts to forestall these ordeals before they begin.
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