A court has ruled that portions of a popular Catholic retreat center in Massachusetts, including a home for battered women and a large wildlife sanctuary, do not fulfill a religious role and are thus eligible to be taxed.
In aruling released on Mar. 22, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court sided with local assessors who argued that parts of the Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette campus did not fit within the commonwealth’s legal definition of space used for “religious worship or instruction.”
The ruling appears to confirm fears among some of Massachusetts faith leaders that courts are reining in the definition of religious practice, at least when it comes to taxes.
At issue were four sections of the shrine’s 199-acre campus in the southeastern Massachusetts city of Attleboro. On its property sits a chapel, a retreat house and a popular exhibit of Christmas lights that draws tens of thousands of visitors each year.
The ruling appears to confirm fears that courts are reining in the definition of religious practice.
Massachusetts law stipulates that property used for religious worship or instruction is exempt from property taxes. The shrine says that its full campus is used for religious purposes and it had not paid property taxes for decades.
But in 2013 town officials said that four parts of the campus, including a welcome center, maintenance shed, as well as the wildlife refuge and shelter, should be taxed because they were used for non-religious purposes. They assessed the full value of the campus at about $13 million, of which about $5 million was taxable.
When presented with a tax bill for $92,000, the religious order that runs the shrine paid the taxes, but it turned to the courts to argue their case, fearing that the annual burden would enfeeble its charitable efforts.
Wednesday’s ruling was split, finding that two of the four areas should be taxed.
The justices found that the town incorrectly taxed the welcome center and maintenance shed, saying that they are both used to carry out the shrine’s religious worship and education. They noted that areas such as parking lots and fellowship halls, while not used for worship per se, have historically been exempt from property taxes because they serve the practical needs of worshippers.
Diane Tillotson, a lawyer representing the shrine, declared victory on that front.
“If you start looking at the activities in the church basement and saying, ‘Well, you host coffee hour there and that's not really religious worship, so we're going to tax you for that portion of the building,’ that could be devastating for churches throughout the commonwealth,” Ms. Tillotson told Boston radio stationWBUR.
In a March 23 statement, Cyriac Mattathilanickal, M.S., a priest who runs the retreat center at the shrine, and Ms. Tilloston said that they also welcomed the court’s decision that the welcome center, a cafeteria and maintenance shed are components of the shrine’s religious mission and are thus exempt from property taxes.
“Like so many other religious institutions, we must occasionally use our property to raise funds to support religious worship and our mission of hope and reconciliation,” the statement read. “We believe that occasional use furthers, and does not at all detract from, the religious worship at our Shrine by ensuring that it will continue to operate for generations to come.”
The justices rejected the city’s argument that the shrine’s gift shop and cafeteria could be taxed because they were used for fundraising and hospitality, not strictly for worship.
“The fact that money earned from the cafeteria, bistro, and gift shop may help pay for the Shrine's expenses does not remove them from the realm of religious worship and instruction,” they wrote in their decision. “Even a church cannot live on prayer alone.”
A representative of the shrine told America that its nature preserve was sold to the Massachusetts Audubon Society in 2014 and so the shrine has already been freed from tax liabilities on the land. The two organizations share access to the land, however, and are working together on hosting events about environmentalism.
Regarding the shelter, Father Mattathilanickal and Ms. Tilloston said that they did not agree with the court’s characterization of religion being distinct from charity, but that the shrine would nonetheless comply with the ruling.
“Charitable works are an integral part of La Salette’s religious mission, as the court acknowledged,” the statement read. “Accordingly, we have welcomed other charitable organizations to our property whose mission is to shelter those in need or to enhance the ecospiritual experience of nature.”
“Though we do not distinguish these uses as ‘charitable’ as a matter of religious teaching,” it continued, “we accept the Court’s holding that, as a matter of state tax law, these uses are more properly considered ‘charitable,’ particularly where undertaken by organizations whose mission does not include religious worship.”
But the court sided with the town in finding that the wildlife refuge and shelter were used for charitable purposes not associated with religion and are thus eligible for taxation—at least under the religious exemption. The justices wrote that those properties could be eligible for tax relief under other statutes concerning charities, but that the shrine had not filed for the correct exemptions.
Representatives of the shrine had argued that the ability to define how it is used for worship was being threatened by the town and the entire campus should be considered an extension of the shrine’s religious mission, rejecting the town’s attempts to parcel up the land into religious and nonreligious parcels.
Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and other local bishops supported the shrine at the time, writing that “communion with nature” is “a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”
Regarding the shelter, representatives contended that providing housing to vulnerable women was an extension of Catholicism’s mandate to serve those in need.
A group of local religious leaders, including Protestants, Jews and Muslims, filed briefs on behalf of the shrine.
The town said in turn that the law clearly applied only to buildings where worship occurred, such as churches or mosques. Lawyers for the town even invoked Pope Francis in their argument, highlighting a 2015 statement in which he chided religious orders for renting out empty monastery rooms to tourists rather than housing refugees.
“Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes!”Francis said at the time. “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.”
The justices sided with the town on the shelter and the wildlife preserve.
“We appreciate that a wildlife sanctuary may be for some a spiritual sanctuary, much as working in a safe house [for battered women] may be for some the realization of a spiritual mission,” the decision reads. “But the Legislature did not intend either a wildlife sanctuary or a safe house, when used and operated as they were here, to qualify as a house of religious worship.”
The ruling hinged on agreements that the shrine had entered into with local nonprofits that maintain and run the wildlife preserve and shelter. Those contracts, the justices said, signal that the primary purpose of the shelter and nature preserve is not religious in nature, perhaps distancing the court from thorny questions about what constitutes religious worship.
This story has been updated with a statement from the shrine.