A blockbuster Supreme Judicial Court case involving an iconic Attleboro shrine could lead to property taxes on every church, synagogue and mosque in Massachusetts.
The case, slated to be heard Tuesday, stems from a decision by Attleboro officials to tax portions of the National Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette for fiscal year 2013.
Tax assessors found that many buildings comprising LaSalette’s massive shrine — including a former convent, a maintenance shed and all of the land surrounding the buildings — were not exempt from taxation under a long-standing state law, according to court documents.
Attleboro’s argument relies on the interpretation of a portion of state law, known as “Clause Eleventh,” which specifically deals with tax exemptions and religious institutions. The city argues that all property in the Bay State should “bear its fair and proportionate tax burden, and that property owned by religious organizations not be singled out for benefits not afforded to other secular entities.”
Religious leaders, needless to say, are taking umbrage with that stance.
“I am concerned that an adverse ruling here could force houses of worship to close down,” said the Rev. Laura Everett, head of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. “It’s a pretty significant case. There is a lot on the line here.”
The city of Attleboro found that more than a third of the shrine’s property did not qualify for the religious tax exemption, and billed the church $92,292.98. The shrine fought the case all the way to the SJC, and nearly every religious sect in the state has filed amicus briefs in support.
“There are religious organizations across the commonwealth that depend on the exemption. If they are denied the exemption they risk not being able to maintain their property or stay in being,” said Heide Nadel, an attorney who wrote on behalf of 12 religious organizations, ranging from the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The Roman Catholic Church filed a separate brief pointing out that religious institutions could be forced to cut back on charitable services — activities that sometimes take place on property that may be deemed taxable.
“Religious institutions have long dedicated their resources and efforts to better our communities and the lives of all citizens in the Commonwealth,” attorney Felicia H. Ellsworth wrote in the brief.
“The General Court, like the legislature of every other state in the union, exempts religious institutions from taxation in recognition and appreciation of these important services.”
Attleboro’s attorneys, who declined to comment, argued in court that a tax exempt “house of religious worship” does not extend to the entire piece of property where it sits.
But an attorney for LaSalette said narrowing state law to fit that definition could have disastrous results. “Every community is trying to raise as much tax revenue as possible, but our position is that they stepped over the line and they are taxing things that are clearly part of the shrine religious worship mission,” said Diane C. Tillotson, the shrine’s attorney.
“It could be a huge financial hit,” she said, “and it’s not unique to one religion.”
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