FFRF continues to fight against tax break for hometown church

St. Raphael’s owns a 1.3-acre lot in downtown Madison that is assessed at more than $4 million

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is continuing its legal battle to ensure that a Catholic church in its hometown pays its fair share of taxes.

The state/church separation watchdog group recently filed an amicus brief in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to support the city of Madison, Wis., levying taxes on property that the St. Raphael’s Church owns in the downtown area. The church sued the city last year in the county circuit court to recover more than $98,000 in taxes it paid in 2014. St. Raphael’s lost its case and appealed. FFRF had filed a legal brief at the circuit court level, too

The lot was once the site of St. Raphael’s Cathedral, destroyed by fire in 2005, as well as a dilapidated school building that was purchased by the church in 2011 and torn down in 2012. Because the conjoined lot was vacant, the city began taxing the property in 2012. That prompted the church to add a “Way of the Cross” walking path on the lot later that year. The church then claimed the property was tax exempt because it was being used for religious purposes.

In the appeals court brief, FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott highlights the lack of utilization of the lot.

“To anyone who observed the property on 334 days in 2014, the property would have appeared to be unoccupied, with no church activities being held,” states Elliott. “Even on the few days that St. Raphael’s hosted activities, only a few people were present for 30 minutes. In total, this would have amounted to approximately 13 hours of activities in 2014.”

Elliott asserts that St. Raphael’s is just holding on to its land for possible development down the road, not entitling it to tax relief.

“If this type of exemption were permitted, any religious, benevolent, or educational organization could buy property for future development and merely place a monument on the property as a placeholder,” he adds. “While holding real property tax-free for more than a decade may be a sound financial investment, it burdens taxpaying citizens and is an abuse of the exemption statute.”

And any governmental body cannot acquiesce in this sort of behavior, Elliott contends: “Under the First Amendment and the Wisconsin Constitution, the government cannot grant such an exemption in the absence of some overarching tax exemption scheme that provides the same benefit to similarly situated benevolent properties.”

FFRF is, frankly, amazed at St. Raphael’s determination to continue its legal fight.

“The church seems to think that it is entitled to a huge tax break,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “This flies in the face of fairness and the law.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has more than 28,000 members nationally and 1,400-plus Wisconsin members. The state/church separation watchdog’s national headquarters is located in Madison, in close proximity to the St. Raphael’s Congregation property that is the subject of this case. FFRF seeks to safeguard the interests of hundreds of its Madison members.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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