Freethought Today · September 2012

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Is Kansan gaming the parsonage exemption?

FFRF is asking a Kansas appraiser in Sedgwick County to investigate misuse of a church parsonage exemption claimed on the home of a state Senate candidate. 

Michael O’Donnell II told the Wichita Eagle that he “lives where he says he lives,” which is a home owned by Grace Baptist Church in Wichita, a home that should be exclusively used by an acting minister who regularly conducts religious services. O’Donnell’s father is senior pastor of the church and lives in a neighboring city. It does not appear that the parsonage has been lived in by a practicing pastor in some time. 

County records show that the church-owned home has been exempt from property taxes since 1996. The Wichita Eagle reported that O’Donnell has been a registered voter at his residence since 2007 and uses it as “his official address on campaign filings and for his position as a Wichita City Council member.” 

A local complainant tipped FFRF off to what appears to be a misuse of a charitable tax exemption. Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote an Aug. 21 letter to County Appraiser Mike Borchard: “We request that Grace Baptist Church or Mr. O’Donnell pay the appropriate amount of current taxes, back taxes and penalties owned.” 

Elliott added that “taxpayers should not have to pay more taxes because a church and its leaders have falsely claimed an exemption.” 

After FFRF’s complaint was reported in the news, O’Donnell recanted his earlier description of his housing arrangements and said that he “misspoke.” O’Donnell said in August on multiple occasions that he paid rent to the church.

In September, he recanted that account and claimed that he continues to work for the church by taking care of the facilities and grounds and is provided free housing in return. The Appraiser’s Office has yet to make a ruling on the exemption of the home.

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