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Issues that affect ministers and churches
New York Court Rules Tax Exemption in Favor of Catholic Diocese
Closed churches’ occasional use for religious purposes is enough to exempt them from property taxes.
Key point. Church property may be exempt from taxation though it is only used infrequently for religious purposes, so long as it is not used for any other purpose.

A New York court ruled that two churches that had been closed by a Catholic Diocese remained exempt from property taxes even though regular worship services no longer were conducted, since the properties were occasionally used for religious purposes (including monthly religious services) and this was their only use. A Catholic Diocese announced plans to permanently close two churches (the "petitioners"). Thereafter, canonical "decrees of suppression" were issued for the two churches that in effect transferred the property and care of the two churches to other parishes. The local tax assessor informed the diocese that the closed churches no longer qualified for exemption from property tax, and that both church properties had been placed on the tax rolls.

The petitioners asked a court to reinstate the exempt status of both properties. The court noted that "while the burden of proof in tax exemption matters ordinarily lies with the party seeking an exemption, a municipality seeking to withdraw an existing exemption bears the burden of proving that the real property in question has become subject to taxation."

[The assessor] contends that the properties are not entitled to tax exemptions because they are no longer "used primarily for the furtherance of [religious] purposes." To meet their burden in this regard, respondents contend that statements made by the Diocese establish that the properties no longer function as churches, that regular worship services and religious activities that were formerly conducted on the properties now take place elsewhere, and that the parcels are now investment properties being marketed for sale for the non-exempt purpose of generating income.

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