Should Courts Get to Define Religion?

The Massachusetts Supreme Court will decide whether a local shrine should be tax-exempt—a decision that could have broad implications for faith organizations in America.

A path depicting the Marian apparition at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, Massachusetts ( Jacob Watson / Flickr)

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.”

Mike Rodrigues has visited the shrine since his childhood, too. But the 37-year-old Fall River resident goes primarily for the 400,000 Christmas lights the La Salette missionaries string up each year, an event that typically attracts hundreds of thousands of people.

“It’s a tradition in my family,” Rodrigues said. “It’s peaceful, it puts things in perspective. The ambiance and the energy in the place is powerful.” He remembers going as a kid, watching his grandparents climb up the long flight of stairs on their knees to reach the statue of the Virgin Mary situated at the top of the hill, reciting prayers along the way.

Today, he said, that’s a less common sight. Instead, visitors will likely find Santa Claus, a couple thousand crèches displayed throughout the grounds, and hordes of children enjoying apple cider and hot chocolate.

Both Ramierez and Rodrigues say their visits are meaningful. But one might be best described as a pilgrim, and the other, a tourist. This is what city officials argued in a brief: The farmers markets, carnivals, yard sales, and clambakes held on the shrine’s grounds are largely commercial activities. They say the Massachusetts law granting property-tax exemption has to be read literally: The text mentions only houses of religious worship, parsonages, and pews and other furniture, so the woods and café don’t qualify.

They even cited Pope Francis, pointing to a 2015 statement he made about the Catholic priests and nuns in Europe who said they could not house refugees in nearly empty monasteries and convents because they were renting out empty rooms to tourists. “Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes!” the pope said. “A religious school is tax-exempt because it is religious, but if it is functioning as a hotel, then it should pay taxes just like its neighbor. Otherwise it is not fair business.”

If the justices rule that shrines’ grounds are taxable, the results could be devastating for other religious organizations. Although it’s very difficult to know the worth of property owned by these groups in the U.S., some estimates put the value at more than $600 billion—no small amount when it comes to the potential tax windfall that could bolster shrinking state and local government budgets. That number doesn’t even include all the bookstores, daycares, coffee shops, and other facilities often affiliated with houses of worship. The real figure may be much greater: In a single Florida county, for example, the value of property exempted from taxation under religious exemptions totaled $1.2 billion, according to a 2007 study.

The Court’s decision could also empower other municipalities to take a closer look at tax-exempt properties in their own jurisdictions as possible cash cows. Other religious organizations in Massachusetts are monitoring the case, fearful that their own assets could be the next targets for taxation. And it’s not uncommon for state judges to look to other jurisdictions for guidance or for federal courts to consider trends in the states as they rule on similar cases.

A trend seems to be emerging. Authorities in Tennessee decided in 2013, for example, that a bookstore and gym on the campus of an evangelical megachurch were not exempt from property taxes under existing law. Officials in Ohio decided in 2012 that church dormitories for visitors are taxable. And a local government in Mississippi is concerned that owners of strip malls are donating portions of their properties to churches—which allegedly don’t actually function as worship spaces—simply to lower their taxes.

On its face, the conflict in Attleboro is about the special status afforded to religious organizations under the law, which is being challenged by those who effectively see tax breaks as government sponsorship of religion. But the deeper issue is about who gets to define religion. Since its founding, Massachusetts has recognized the value religion gives to wider society, which is why the state has given churches certain tax breaks. The meaning of religion has expanded and changed since colonial days, and interpretations of the law should take that into account. In a pluralistic, multicultural country like the United States, believers have to be able to decide for themselves what constitutes their faith; that’s the only way to implement the existing law fairly.

The Reverend Cyriac Mattathilanickal, who heads the shrine, said its operations will undoubtedly be affected if the court decides it must pay property taxes. “For us, feeding the poor is very much part of our worship and instruction,” he said, noting that the soup kitchen operates in a space the city declared taxable. “We say that we should feed the poor, that we should take care of the poor, the homeless, and every Monday we feed 130 to 150 people in our cafeteria,” he continued. “I cannot separate that activity from the worship and instruction that we do inside the church as part of our prayer.”

Even the city has praised its value to the community. Jeremy Denlea, a city councilor whose district includes the shrine, called it “a great neighbor.” He said he hopes the shrine’s charitable endeavors, and its light display, will continue regardless of the court’s ruling, which is expected sometime this summer. But it’s fair for the city to try to collect taxes on the property, he said. “I think it’s unfortunate, and kind of uncomfortable right now,” he said. “But this is the cost of doing business in modern-day society.”

The effect of the looming ruling on the shrine’s future won’t be known for some time. But one thing seems likely: If religious groups are forced to pay property taxes, ministries will contract and charitable programs will shrink. Mattathilanickal said the soup kitchen and the shrine’s other charity work would likely face cuts should the court rule in favor of the city. If the government fails to supplement those services in Attleboro and elsewhere, which seems likely, it’s the poor who will ultimately suffer most.

“Everything will be impacted,” Mattathilanickal said. “Because the taxes will never go down, they will only go up and up. The taxes, they will keep increasing.”