A Victory for Religious Freedom in the Bay State

A Catholic shrine in Massachusetts has prevailed over a municipal government in a state Supreme Court case about the religious exemption to local property taxes.

As the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts reported last April, the Board of Assessors of the City of Attleboro in Bristol County claimed in 2012 that some of the land and buildings belonging to the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette were not being used for religious purposes, and were, therefore, not tax exempt. The assessors asserted that a visitors center and maintenance shed, along with two parcels of land leased to secular non-profit organizations for a wildlife sanctuary and a battered women’s shelter, were subject to local property taxes.

All of the property of the shrine, which is administered by the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette, has been tax exempt since the founding of the shrine in 1953.

After a petition for an abatement was denied in 2013, the shrine appealed to the State Appellate Tax Board, which upheld the assessors’ decision in a September, 2015 ruling. The case then went before the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth in April of 2016. On March 22nd of this year, the SJC, in a unanimous decision authored by Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants, overturned the finding of the Appellate Tax Board, and granted partial relief to the shrine.

In a surprisingly vigorous affirmation of the extent of the tax exemption for religious institutions, Gants wrote in Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette, Inc. v. Board of Assessors of Attleboro, that “We recognize that a house of religious worship is more than the chapel used for prayer and the classrooms used for religious instruction…The board defined far too narrowly the scope of the religious exemption…even a church cannot live on prayer alone.”

The court ruled that the visitors center and maintenance shed met the “dominant purpose test” and were exempt from taxation, while the land leased to secular non-profits, though not eligible for a religious exemption, could be tax exempt under the laws pertaining to public charities.

The Catholic Action League called the decision “a welcome, though unexpected, finding from a liberal court, not known for its sympathy to claims of religious liberty.”

Catholic Action League Executive Director C. J. Doyle stated: “No government agency should be the judge of its own cause. Cities and towns are not disinterested parties when it comes to their own revenue streams. They have a financial interest, for reasons of taxation, in narrowing the legal understanding of what constitutes a religious purpose in land use. This encourages the dangerous contemporary habit of defining down freedom of religion to freedom of worship.”

“The recent wave of church closings in the Commonwealth has given rise to the predatory practice of Bay State municipalities attempting to cash in by immediately converting closed churches, even those still occupied by protesters, to taxable property.”

“The Supreme Judicial Court has issued a timely and warranted rebuke to municipal bureaucrats—and their political masters—hungry to acquire new objects of taxation to feed the insatiable appetite for larger government payrolls.”