An Ohio pastor's insistence that a Freedom From Religion Foundation billboard be moved off church property in Columbus appears to have backfired.
Shortly after Columbus atheist Dylan Galos' "Coming Out of the Closet" billboard stating "I can be good without God" went up in late June, Rev. Waymon Malone Jr. of Christ Cathedral Church said it had to go, and it was moved to a new location.
After researching property and tax records, FFRF sent a letter July 7 to ask Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo II to look into the situation. Had Christ Cathedral ever paid taxes on the commercial portion of the property as required by law? Did the church misrepresent the intended use of the property when applying for a tax exemption in 1997?
Christ Cathedral is located at 3350 Allegheny Ave. The billboard was located behind the church, facing Stelzer Road.
"We have enclosed your office’s summary of the property that lists $0 in annual taxes on the property and its classification as 'exempt,' " FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor noted in the letter.
"Additionally, we have provided a copy of Christ Cathedral Church’s application for exemption that was completed by Mr. Malone in 1997. When asked how the property was being used, Mr. Malone said, 'for a church.' On the form, Mr. Malone also stated that the property was not being leased or rented to anyone else, was not used to produce any income other than donations, and that no one else was using the property other than the applicant."
Mingo responded July 20 that his staff would look into it. A few days later, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott got a phone call from a member of Mingo's staff. "He said that the billboard property will be taxed. It is approximately one-tenth of an acre that will be taxed at a yearly rate of $186."
Further investigation called for
FFRF further inquired in an Aug. 1 letter to Mingo about the church-owned property at 407 Stelzer Road that is directly behind the billboard. It was purchased for $550,000 and is receiving a tax exemption. It appears that several private businesses are leasing most of the building.
Gaylor wrote, "We request that you investigate the church’s use of these properties, as we believe that large portions do not fall within the religious tax exemption statute under Ohio [law]. "If they do not qualify, we further request that the split-listing process for both Christ Cathedral Church and the adjacent property take place, again under taxable and nontaxable portions, depending on whether the facilities on the church properties are being used for 'public worship.' "
Gaylor also noted that Teach & Learn Child Care, AMC Realty and AMC Transport, all with listed addresses at 407 Stelzer Road, are headed by Anthony Malone, who FFRF believes may be related to Pastor Malone.
If the auditor determines that all the church's leased property should be taxed at nonexempt rates, it could come to about $15,000 — thereby reducing the burden on nonexempt taxpayers by the same amount.
However, according to the Tax Incentives Section of the office, "Ohio law does not permit the revocation of an exemption for prior years." That means back taxes wouldn't be collected.