• Key point 5-02. The term “church” is used in a number of state tax laws, including property tax exemption statutes. State courts have struggled to provide an adequate definition.
Zoning Law for Churches
* The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that the term “church” is not limited to buildings that are owned by a religious congregation, but also includes rented facilities. A state law provides that no license shall be issued for the retail sale of liquor within 150 feet of any “church.” A convenience store applied for a license to sell liquor, despite the fact that it was located less than 150 feet from a church. A state liquor commission granted the license on the ground that the church was not a “church.” It based this decision on its definition of a church as “a building owned by a religious organization, used primarily for religious purposes, and having tax-exempt status.” The commission pointed out that the church in this case did not own its property, and was not identified as a tax-exempt entity by the property tax assessor’s office. The church in question held religious worship services each Sunday and Friday, and prayer meetings each Monday. The church is located in a storefront property and has a large white cross prominently displayed on the front door. A sign over the door identifies the building as a church. However, as the commission noted, the church rented its facility, and was not identified by the tax assessor as a tax-exempt organization. The state supreme court concluded that the church was a “church,” according to the plain meaning of the term, and that the commission erred in granting the license to sell liquor. It observed,
This court has determined that the plain, ordinary, and popular meaning of the word “church” includes a building in which people assemble for the worship of God and for the administration of such offices and services as pertain to that worship, a building used predominately for the honor of God and religion, and a place where persons regularly assemble for worship. The commission’s definition of “church,” however, differs substantially from the plain and ordinary meaning of the word. Most significantly, it requires that a church be owned by a religious organization eligible for a property tax exemption. Whether or not a building is a church, however, does not depend on the legal ownership of the building. The plain meaning of the word “church” encompasses buildings in which persons regularly assemble for religious worship, regardless of whether the building is owned or rented by those persons. [The commission’s definition], however, plainly states that a “church” must be owned by a religious organization. [This] is contrary to the plain meaning of the word as used in [the statute] and may arbitrarily exclude from their definition a number of churches that are entitled to the protection of the statute.
The court also noted. “A parsonage, owned by a religious organization and furnished to a member of the clergy, and used primarily to promote the objects and purposes of a faith, is used exclusively for religious purposes and exempt from taxation. Arguably, a parsonage would then be a church as defined by [the commission], despite the fact that a parsonage is not a church under the plain meaning of the word.” The court concluded, “In short, the commission’s definition of church is contrary to the plain meaning of the word and is thus invalid. While a building’s ownership by a religious organization, and tax exemption, is relevant evidence in inquiring whether a building is a church, ownership is not dispositive of the inquiry.” City of Omaha v. Kum & Go, 642 N.W.2d 154(Neb. 2002).
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