Court rules that Catholic Church lot in downtown Madison must be taxed

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Church must pay property tax on downtown lot in Madison, Wis., that is assessed at $4 million

A Dane County judge has ruled that the Catholic Church must pay taxes on a multimillion–dollar lot it owns in downtown Madison.

Dane County Circuit Court Judge Rhonda Lanford decided on Oct. 4 that a 1.3-acre lot in Madison owned by the Catholic Church is not exempt from property taxes. The Church sued the city last year to recover taxes it paid on the lot, which amount to nearly $100,000 per year.

FFRF filed an amicus curiae brief in June supporting the city of Madison. FFRF's brief questioned how St. Raphael's could retain an exemption while it was really just holding on to the lot as a future site of a $50 million cathedral.

"All Madison taxpayers should not have to pay more taxes while St. Raphael's invests in its other property holdings in Madison and holds the St. Raphael's lot for future development," FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. "It is precisely for this reason that property must be used to maintain an exemption."

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the city of Madison, holding that land that is tax exempt must be "necessary for the location and convenience of buildings" under Wisconsin law. Since there are no church buildings on the lot, it is taxable.

While the church may some day develop the property, the court found that tax exemptions do not "extend to pre-construction planning of a building." The Church also failed to demonstrate that it was "readying" the property for construction. Judge Lanford noted, "While plaintiff has acquired property in preparation for construction of the new cathedral, it has not submitted plans of any kind into this record."

FFRF is delighted at the ruling.

"This is a victory for taxpayers," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "Churches cannot be allowed to abuse tax exemptions by holding on to valuable real estate and expecting local governments to look the other way when they fail to actually use the property for exempt purposes."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national state/church watchdog organization with more than 23,000 nonreligious members all over the country, including 1,300-plus in Wisconsin.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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