FFRF blasts Wis. budget amendment favoring one Catholic church

A Wisconsin budget amendment to grant a targeted tax exemption and windfall to one Catholic church violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution, charges the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The Wisconsin Joint Finance Committee approved a budget amendment to provide a property tax exemption to St. Raphael’s Congregation, a Catholic Church in Madison, Wis.

“It is unconstitutional for the state legislature to grant special tax exemptions that apply only to churches,” said Patrick Elliott, Senior Counsel for FFRF.

St. Raphael’s owns undeveloped property and prime real estate in downtown Madison, and has fought the city of Madison over the collection of property taxes since 2012. The church, under protest, has paid nearly $100,000 each year in taxes on its lot, which is assessed at over $4 million.

In the 12 years since St. Raphael’s church burned down, the church has not worked to replace it although it received $6.4 million in insurance proceeds. Instead of building on the lot, St. Raphael’s spent $2 million to purchase a neighboring property on the tax rolls, which it razed. In an apparent attempt to dodge property taxes, it then put in landscaping that includes a walking path with stone markers designating the Stations of the Cross.

Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford ruled against the church last year, finding that the city had properly assessed property taxes on the church’s lot. St. Raphael’s has appealed the decision. Under Wisconsin Supreme Court precedent, exempt property must include buildings that are used for exempt purposes.

The Joint Finance Committee budget amendment is clearly tailored to apply to St. Raphael’s. It would grant a special tax exemption to property owned by “churches and religious associations” if they intend to “replace a building destroyed by fire, natural disaster, or criminal act.” The exemption would apply for 25 years.

The church has said publicly that it would like to build a $50 million cathedral on the lot. If the Joint Finance Committee budget bill passes, the church could delay building for another 12 years and stiff Madison taxpayers with more than $1.2 million in added taxes.

“All other taxpayers would pay more because St. Raphael’s doesn’t want to follow the same rules that apply to everyone else,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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