Taxing churches

Taxing churches

With parishes closing all over the Boston area, local officials are salivating at the thought of all the expensive property being sold and put on the tax rolls finally. But some aren’t willing to wait. The mayor and city council of Lowell, Mass., have decided to start taxing churches that have been closed. Their reasoning is a bit flawed.

“The taxpayers of Lowell have been subsidizing these tax-exempt entities and were very willing to do so because of the benefit of the churches toward the faithful,” he said. “However, that’s no longer the case, and the city of Lowell taxpayers should no longer be subsidizing these buildings.”

Churches and church property are not tax-exempt because of the utility they provide to citizens, not is that exemption a privilege extended by government. Churches and church property are tax exempt because of the separation of church and state interpretation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

While the city plans to immediately begin taxing parking lots, schools, and rectories, they are also asking the state Department of Revenue to tell them they can tax the actual church buildings. When the Archdiocese of Boston challenges this in court, and they will rather than just pay out $183,000 per year, the city is going to get a quick and smart smackdown from the courts. And if the politicians weren’t so greedy, they could just wait until the property is sold to start taxing it. Now they’ll lose out on legal costs, and probably on the archdiocese’s legal costs, and be further behind than when they started.

  • Hi, Dom. 

    I’m not convinced of your argument, since I’ve been under the impression —possibly incorrect—that the property-tax-exempt status of church buildings was a matter of state law, not a constitutional right.  Can you point us readers to any information to confirm your understanding of the law?

  • I don’t have anything other than conversations I’ve had with pastors and other people who would have firsthand knowledge of such things. I also have a recollection of some Supreme Court cases, but I can’t cite the names.

  • I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the separation between church and state has been sufficiently breached through The Situation that precedents could be found to uphold a claim that empty churches should be taxed.  Just takes a clever lawyer and a jaded public to support it.  Since it’s going to be applied to the Catholic Church first—rather than a Jewish synagogue, for instance—I wouldn’t count that $183,000 in the assets column just yet.  Roman Catholicism is targeted in too large of a segment of America these days.  First the creche, next the tax examption.

  • Some people are beginning to add up the costs required to investigate and prosecute criminal charges against Catholic clergy who claim innocence in child molesting suits.