Should Courts Get to Define Religion?


Source: The Atlantic


Property-tax battles are rarely sexy. But a case now in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, about whether the 21 religious brothers and sisters who run the Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette in Attleboro should have to pay taxes, could have huge repercussions. The Court’s decision will be an important part of the ongoing debate in America about who defines religious practice—believers or bureaucrats—and whether religion itself should be afforded a special place under the law.

The case centers on a colonial-era law in Massachusetts that exempts religious houses of worship and parsonages from property taxes if they are used for religious worship or instruction. The shrine has enjoyed this perk since its founding in 1953. But in recent years, the City of Attleboro, nestled between Providence and Boston, has faced a tightening budget. It began looking to see where it could collect more revenue. The shrine, the only major tourist attraction in town, was an obvious target for tax collectors.

The city valued the property at $12.8 million, all of which had previously been exempt. But in 2013, officials decided that $4.9 million of that value represented property not used for religious worship or instruction. They declared that a maintenance shed, coffee shop, conference rooms, and a religious bookstore—along with the forest preserve that covers more than half the campus—are used for secular purposes. The shrine, the city decided, had to pay up, and received a $92,000 tax bill.

Under pressure, the shrine paid, but then sought a tax abatement through the courts, arguing that all 199 acres were used for religious purposes. Faith leaders from across Massachusetts agreed and filed a brief in support of the shrine. “The notion that local assessors or any government actor is equipped or would presume to deem whether one use of a religious organization’s property or another falls within the definition of ‘religious worship’ is antithetical to religious freedom,” said the brief, signed by leaders representing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim organizations. Catholic bishops in Massachusetts, including Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, also weighed in, arguing in a brief that the shrine’s grounds offer “communion with nature,” which “is a core religious activity with ancient roots in Christianity’s past.”

As the justices weigh whether or not different parts of the shrine’s property are taxable, visitors to the campus have said they use it for a variety of purposes, both sacred and profane. Kristine Ramierez visits for the open space. The 26-year-old Catholic heads to the shrine a few times each month to attend Mass and lead retreats geared toward Catholic families. During these gatherings, she said, it’s not uncommon to light a candle in one of the indoor chapels and then head outside to pray and meditate, perhaps taking a seat in one of the gardens or venturing out to the nearby pond, where the church gets its holy water.

“Normally, in our own lives, we go from building to building and there’s not a lot of open space, which I think is needed for clearing your mind,” she said. The grounds of the shrine are perfect for this, she continued, calling them “very peaceful and meditative.”

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