The Court Case
“When these tax records were presented at our PA HRC meeting
Our Members have been kept up to date through private letters, but it is only now, after seven years of litigation, that we can discuss our court case in public. Oh my, where to begin? Well, perhaps first a bit of background. While church income is generally tax-exempt, the property that a church owns is not necessarily tax-exempt. This varies widely state-by-state, and in Pennsylvania it varies county by county. A local taxing authority may tax most, or very little, of a church’s property as long as it applies that taxation uniformly to all the churches within its jurisdiction. Ah, you guessed it! Uniformly.
Since 1999 when Four Quarters purchased its first tract of land, we have paid property tax on all of our land. We first appealed this situation in 2001, and were so rudely treated that the tactical decision was made to drop the matter until we had the funds to mount a credible court challenge. We appealed again in 2009 and were simply ignored. In 2012 we sued the local tax board in District Court, demanding that we be recognized as a church and our property be treated as is all church property in Bedford County, tax exempt.
When our case was tried in District Court, the county’s position was that since we do not have a church building, but instead worship primarily out of doors, that our property should be taxed as if it were a commercial campground. We contended that our form of worship is unique, but worship nonetheless, and as such is protected. We argued that outdoor places such as the Fox Altar, The Stone Circle, and the Labyrinth were “stated places of religious worship” under Pennsylvania law and thus constituted our church “building.” We also made an argument based on a pivotal 2005 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision, "Wesley First Methodist"; in which the court found that if a church could show property was absolutely essential to its form of worship, then that property is tax-exempt. Under “Wesley” we argued that our kitchens, dorms and other facilities were essential to support our members’ long travel times, and we further argued that the very land itself forms a privacy buffer without which we would be unable to worship at all.
In a very mixed decision the District court ruled in our favor regarding some of our outdoor places of worship, and recognized some of our facilities as exempt under “Wesley.” However, the court denied that our right to privacy of worship was protected by the land! We filed an appeal to Commonwealth Court in the state capitol.
In that appeals decision, the Commonwealth Court added some additional places of worship, and expanded some of our facilities as tax-exempt, but most importantly the appeals court resoundingly affirmed that the raw land itself constituted our privacy buffer and that privacy was essential to our worship. Commonwealth court sent the case back for the lawyers to haggle out an agreement. A clear, although not complete victory.
We haggled and we bartered, cajoled and connived an agreement that, while not ideal, did recognize our church and most importantly our LAND, as a central part of our Nature Based Spiritual Practice. In March 2015 an agreement with the County Tax Board was signed. And then a strange thing happened. Nothing...
By that I mean no required paperwork was filed by the county, no formal reassessment of our property in light of the signed agreement was made, and no action was taken in light of the court orders in our favor. Well, truth to tell there were mysterious changes made to our tax records, made and unmade. We filed a contempt of court action in District Court against the Tax Board. And we took a further step, we filed a religious discrimination action against the Tax Board with The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Now to back up a bit, it is important to understand that the annual property taxes involved amount to about $2,000 a year, and at this point the Church had spent well over $20,000 in legal fees with two new court actions on the horizon. Clearly this is not about money, but it is very much about recognizing that the Land is central to our religious practice and that we simply demand that we be treated as is any other church in Bedford County. So it was with very real trepidation that we decided to pursue these court actions in the face of what was already seven years of appeals and court hearings, and to do so by pulling off the mask of religious discrimination which we all knew was the real sub-text all along.
The PA HRC is an interesting organization; they do not exist to find fault, but rather to arrange mediation and agreements between contending parties. As such they follow their own evidentiary rules and procedures, which are quite different than those followed in a court of law. After all, how do you show the hidden bigotry that may underlie a person’s actions? In our case we began by closely reviewing every piece of evidence we had collected, showing how we, and other Bedford churches, were taxed. That is a lot of data to comb through. It also meant regular visits to the Tax Office to request records. On one of these visits we realized that we could gain access to the database change logs that document every change made to an individual tax record, and in reviewing those change logs made an interesting discovery: That while our case was at trial, someone had been making changes to the tax records that we were going to use as evidence in the trial. Can you say smoking gun?
When these records were presented at our PA HRC meeting, the Tax Board basically folded their case and took the night train out of town. Have we won? Well, maybe.
* The concept that physical outdoor places like The May Pole, The Fox Altar, The Labyrinth and The Stone Circle are “stated places of worship” has been established, basically a legal first in Pennsylvania.
* The concept that the raw Land itself provides the privacy required for religious worship has been established. Also a legal first.
* The concept that we worship out of doors has been established and is protected, as is our need to accommodate the long travel times of our Members and guests.
At this point in time about 70% of the Land that forms our two core Church properties has been found exempt for purposes of religious worship and we feel that is fair and reasonable. All of our buildings, except the dining pavilion, have been found to be exempt. And we have successfully enrolled our Land in the statewide “Clean and Green” tax abatement program.
A few items remain. We still do not have a final signed agreement incorporating the findings of the PA HRC mediation, although that is in the works. We have not yet received official notice that 45 acres of the new property we have purchased is exempt in accordance with that mediation. And most importantly, and what started this fight seven years ago, two magic words have yet to appear on our official tax records. “CHURCH-EXEMPT.”
Are we holding their feet to the fire? You bet! But we are very, very close to a final resolution. For me personally it has been a long seven years of records, research, hearings, trials, meetings, hope and sometimes nail-biting fear for the Church and the people I love so much. I think of the support of our members, which made it possible to soldier on through some very hard times. The long meetings with Robert Lape, our church attorney. And the big day when I, Roger Grandstaff, Alan Shear and Tommy Williams gave five hours of testimony at our trial, in the face of aggressive cross-examination which was later so compelling when our case was heard at appeal.
In the grand scheme of things, in the face of Climate Change, the rise of the Corporate Oligarchy, or a child going to bed hungry, all of this is not very important. Perhaps in ten or twenty years another progressive Pennsylvania church may find our court records and use that precedent to chart their own way forward in the face of prejudice and bigotry. I’m simply glad that it looks like this fight will finally end. I’ve been there and done that. I bought the tee-shirt and I wear it with pride.
“Don’t Mess with My Church!”