A New Hampshire state court has ruled that the city of Nashua may tax closed churches. Actually, it said it can previous property taxes it levied.
The Diocese of Manchester closed two Catholic parishes in 2003, but they were not sold until September 2004 and property taxes were levied and paid for 2004. In the time between the closing and sale, according to the diocese, they were used for storage of “religious items.” A lower court had ruled that the storage of religious items constituted religious use under the First Amendment and thus exempt from taxation. The higher court disagreed.
In the court’s ruling, Associate Justice James E. Duggan wrote, “the mere storage of religious objects in a deconsecrated church does not rise to the level of using or occupying the space for ‘religious purposes.’ ”
Duggan added, “Instead, it amounts to using the space for convenient interim storage” while the church was being sold.
He said the court’s ruling was consistent with case law and with “the legislative intent of religious tax exemption statute.”
I’m not sure what the state’s religious tax exemption law says, but it appears that in order to qualify for exemption a building must have a specifically religious purpose. But doesn’t that mean the state has to define what constitutes a particular religion’s mission and purpose?
What is often so troubling about court rulings on separation of church and state is that the state makes such distinctions all the time. The government and its agencies are constantly deciding what is an actual religion and what is not, what is a religious practice and what is not. (Otherwise every Tom, Dick, and Jim-Bob could declare his house is a church and his job is a religious practice and thus everyone could be exempt from taxes.)
Apparently the mayor of Nashua would prefer not to have to tax closed churches at all, but would rather see such churches remain open—or at least he recognizes that’s what his constituents would rather see.
Nashua Mayor Bernie Streeter said that while he’s happy with the court decision, he would have preferred the churches hadn’t become vacant.“While I am pleased the city prevailed, I don’t expect there is a mayor anywhere in this nation who looks forward to taxing former places of worship,” Streeter said.
“But as the city and the judge correctly pointed out, when a church becomes vacant or the land and buildings are not used for religious purposes, it becomes taxable property,” he said.
The diocese paid a total of $56,000 in taxes on the two properties.
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