Equal treatment is easier to preach than practice – particularly when tax dollars are at stake.
Aldersgate United Methodist Church, a small congregation in the coastal city of Rockland, Maine, applied for a property tax exemption on its church building, parking lot, and surrounding grounds, but the City refused to exempt the parking lot. Why? Because the applicant is a church.
The City of Rockland is enforcing Maine’s tax exemption statute to the distinct disadvantage of churches, and costing at least one congregation thousands of dollars annually in additional taxes – taxes which other charitable organizations do not pay. Rockland justifies demanding those additional tax dollars, first, by playing on Maine’s flawed statutory scheme and, second, by interpreting “charitable” to the exclusion of churches.
Maine’s tax exemption statutory scheme is fundamentally flawed. The statute broadly exempts property owned by and used for not-for-profit groups, including charities, hospitals, fraternities, child care centers, and veterans groups. The parking lots of these organizations are tax-exempt, no questions asked. But the statute treats “houses of religious worship” differently: they are limited to the exemption of their church building, furniture, burial plots, and a portion of the parsonage. No other not-for-profit is similarly limited. Such an unseemly dicing of religiously-owned property could be overlooked – if the broader charitable exemption were available to all charitable organizations equally.
But in Rockland, Maine, not all charities are created equal.
The City of Rockland admitted that allof Aldersgate’s property – including the parking lot – would be exempt if Aldersgate met the criteria of a charitable institution. Charities operate for the public benefit, train the hearts and minds of their hearers, relieve suffering, and, in sum, lessen the burden on the government. The City insists that Aldersgate does not meet these qualifications. But if this church does not qualify, the City would be hard-pressed to find an organization that does.
Aldersgate, like most churches, is a place of worship, instruction, and education, and seeks to train the hearts and minds of all who choose to attend. Attendees are taught how to live moral and healthy lives as productive citizens of the Rockland community, thereby lessening the burden on the government. Aldersgate offers financial support and counseling to the downtrodden, hurting, and hopeless. It relieves the distress of the indigent and hungry, sending volunteers to work in soup kitchens and build homes for the homeless. Aldersgate provides community services such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. It makes its church building and parking lot available free of charge to numerous public groups, including local orchestras, addiction-recovery societies, and community festivals. Any one of these factors alone would be sufficient to exempt a secular institution.
The social and intangible benefits a church provides to society are incalculable, as discussed here. But unwarranted taxation drains church coffers and decreases the services churches can provide to their communities. The law should be no respecter of persons, or charities. Aldersgate should enjoy at least the same tax treatment and benefits granted to similar not-for-profit charitable organizations.
ADF is representing Aldersgate United Methodist Church as it speaks up against discrimination in tax treatment. It is time for Maine to end its uncharitable discrimination and put equal treatment into practice.
This post originally appeared here.