Taxation—Church Property – Part 2

New York’s highest court ruled that four parsonages owned by a church were all exempt from property tax.

Church Law and Tax 2005-07-01

Taxation—church property – Part 2

Key point. Parsonages are exempt from property taxation in some states.

* New York’s highest court ruled that four parsonages owned by a church were all exempt from property tax since they were occupied by “officiating clergy” employed by the church. New York law exempts from property tax “property owned by a religious corporation while actually used by the officiating clergymen thereof for residential purposes shall be exempt from taxation.” A church owned four residences, each of which was occupied by an assistant pastor. A local tax assessor refused to exempt these properties from tax on the ground that the term “officiating clergyman” should be construed to mean the “spiritual and settled leader” of a church. The church appealed.

The New York Court of Appeals (the highest state court) noted that the city was claiming that there is only one officiating clergyman per congregation—the minister who “has ultimate supervisory authority over the other clergy,” and that in the city’s view an “assistant pastor,” by virtue of title alone, can rarely constitute officiating clergy within the meaning of the statute.

The court “declined to read the statute so narrowly.” It conceded that “officiating clergymen” does not mean all clergymen. But “neither does it mean only one clergy person who presides over subordinates. Rather, we construe officiating as looking outward to a cleric’s relationship with his or her congregation, and not to the hierarchical structure of the various clergy persons. Thus, a full-time, ordained member of the clergy who presides over an established church’s ecclesiastical services and ceremonies, conducts weddings and funerals, and administers the sacraments of the church—in short, one who officiates—is entitled to the statutory tax exemption.”

The court concluded that the church “is entitled to a parsonage exemption for each of the four properties.” It “declined to hold that the mere designation of one of the pastors here as the ‘Senior Pastor’ means that as a matter of law he and he alone is the officiating clergy. All of the pastors, including those living at the residences in question, were ordained and held no outside employment. All took part in church services and shared in the preaching. All provided marital counseling, officiated at marriages and funerals, and administered the sacraments recognized by the church. They also ministered to the youth of the church and took part in outreach to the homeless. Indeed, the pastors ministered to at least 2,000 people weekly. Because the pastors’ salaries are low, [the church] provides them with housing, located near the church. We thus reject the city’s argument that the residents in question are not officiating clergy.” Word of Life Ministries v. Nassau County, 787 N.Y.S.2d 705 (N.Y. 2004).

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