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Religious owner of Monona, Wis., lakefront property abusing tax status, FFRF charges

A Wisconsin town is improperly conferring a tax exemption on a multimillion-dollar lakefront property owned by a religious order, asserts the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The city of Monona has incorrectly classified a nearly 10-acre property on Lake Monona, located at 4123 Monona Drive, as being exempt from property taxes. The property is generally referred to as the “San Damiano Friary” and has been categorized as exempt from taxes by the city’s property assessor, Accurate Appraisal. However, the property has reportedly not been used for tax-exempt purposes since at least 2015. The Wisconsin State Journal reported four years ago that the last priest was moving out then. 

“The use made of property determines whether it is subject to taxation or whether it is entitled to tax exemption,” the Wisconsin Supreme Court has made clear. Based on the relevant facts, this property does not qualify for a tax exemption under Wisconsin law, FFRF contends. The property is not used for tax-exempt purposes and is now rented to tenants.

“Property that is exempt under Wis. Stat. § 70.11(4) must actually be used by the entity seeking an exemption,” FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott writes to Monona City Administrator Bryan Gadow and Accurate Appraisal. “It is not enough for a religious organization to own the property, it must be ‘used exclusively’ by the organization.”

In Dominican Nuns v. City of La Crosse, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that a church property that was being maintained but had been vacated by a religious order was taxable. This was because “the property was not being ‘used’ for any of the order’s regular activities or benevolent purposes.” It appears that any claim to an exemption by the owner here is even worse than in the Dominican Nuns case, since the property is reportedly being rented to tenants, FFRF adds.

Monona residents should be livid that the owner of the San Damiano Friary has stuck them with higher taxes by failing to pay its fair share. Given the size and prime location of the property, other residents have likely had to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars that the city failed to collect, FFRF emphasizes.

“That’s why FFRF is requesting on behalf of our local members that the city add the property to the tax roll and collect taxes from the religious order as required by law,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Some religious organizations act entitled to an exemption, but the reality is tax-exempt status is based on the use of property, not on ownership.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a Madison, Wis.-based national nonprofit organization with more than 30,000 members across the country, including members who are Monona residents.

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