Mass. Court considers church tax exemption case

Attleboro -- The tax-exempt status of church properties has been challenged by one Massachusetts municipality, and soon the matter will be settled statewide. In 2013, the city of Attleboro sent a $92,292.98 tax bill to Our Lady of LaSalette Shrine, which had never been taxed in its 60-year history. The Appellate Tax Board upheld the decision, and the shrine's appeal is currently being considered by the Supreme Judicial Court.

Massachusetts' highest court will decide whether or not state law allows for the taxation of church properties that are not exclusively used for worship. Religious groups across the state say a move to tax such properties would affect nearly every faith community in the state.

An "amicus curiae" or "friend of court" brief -- filed by the Massachusetts Council of Churches, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Council on American Islamic Relations Massachusetts and Our Lady of Fatima Shrine in Holliston -- states that if the ruling were upheld it would have "sweeping, potentially disastrous effects for religious organizations across the Commonwealth."

LaSalette Shrine, established by missionaries in 1953 and designated the national shrine devoted to Our Lady of LaSalette in 2009, sits on 199 acres. The city assessor's office valued the land with improvements at $12.8 million in 2013. The city found $5 million taxable, including 100 percent of the maintenance shed, a former convent (currently a safe house for battered women), 110 wooded acres and the portion of the Welcome Center that consists of the cafeteria, gift shop and display of international creches. The rest of the Welcome Center, containing a small coffee shop and conference room was taxed at 40 percent. Land surrounding the buildings was taxed at the same rate. Only the shrine's church, chapels, monastery and retreat center were considered tax exempt.

Massachusetts G.L. c. 59, section 5, clause 11 states that tax exemption does not "extend to any portion of any such house of religious worship appropriated for purposes other than religious worship or instruction." It specifies that "occasional or incidental" non-religious use is allowed.

The city of Attleboro's brief argues that because the shrine hosts non-religious activities, sections of the property are taxable. It cites fundraisers, election poling and events for groups like veterans and public school teachers. Also mentioned is the extensive conservation land around the shrine, which at the time was managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

The shrine counters that allowing the use of its space is a public service it provides as part of its mission.

In their amicus brief supporting the shrine, the bishops of the four dioceses in Massachusetts -- Fall River, Boston, Springfield and Worchester -- say that the Attleboro tax assessor has failed to understand that charity and conservation are "core religious activities." Further, churches traditionally open their property to community events and rely on fundraising to supplement their income, they say.

Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, MS, representative of the shrine, said, "As far as we are concerned, every event that we do is religious in nature and very much part and parcel of the mission and vision of LaSalette Shrine."

Many religious events take place on the property -- retreats and the shrine's famous Festival of Lights held every Christmas. Pilgrims are encouraged to walk around the property where they can find a statue of St. Francis, a grotto dedicated to St. Joseph, a replica of Our Lady of LaSalette, a rosary walk and Stations of the Cross -- all of which are on land currently taxed by the city of Attleboro. Father Mattathilanickal also leads eco-spirituality retreats on the property.

Stanley Nacewicz, the chief assessor in Attleboro, would not comment for this story except to say that the determination is now up to the Supreme Judicial Court.

In its brief, Attleboro says that the shrine's new tax burden is "fair and proportionate" and bolsters its argument with the words of Pope Francis, taken from a 2015 interview in Portugal. The pope spoke of religious orders that convert a closed convent to a hotel and said, "Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes! A religious school is tax exempt because it is religious, but if it is functioning as a hotel, then it should pay taxes just like its neighbor. Otherwise it is not fair business."

But shrine defenders say the shrine is not operating a business on its property.

Agatha Bodwell, executive director of Catholic Citizenship, said, "We understand that towns are suffering financially, but taxing land and outbuildings that belong to religious institutions is ludicrous and puts us on a very slippery slope."

C.J. Doyle, executive director of the Catholic Action League, noted that if the court upholds the tax, local governments would have a strong incentive to define down religious freedom.

"We have to be very, very careful that religious freedom just doesn't consist of worship inside a building on Sunday morning. It's much more multi-faceted than that," he said. "This discussion really ends at the property line."

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