As we researched tax law it turns out that, as in most things, there is a lot of misinformation on the subject. Folks generally consider that Churches do not pay property taxes, but that is actually not the case. Pennsylvania in particular is not all that friendly to Churches on the subject of property tax exemption. Generally, only the actual church building is exempt, and often only that part of the building used for actual worship services. There are many cases in the law records of churches appealing for their parking lots, sidewalks, ball fields, outdoor shrines, kitchens, libraries and the like; and losing those appeals in front of the State Supreme Court. In fact, Church Camps are almost always fully taxed in Pennsylvania. For a group of people who worship outdoors in a Stone Circle, and view the natural world as our Temple, Church, Text and Altar, these are not encouraging rulings. But like most things legal, and ya gotta love it, there is of room for exceptions.
In a land mark case decided just a few years ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that because of the elderly suburban demographic of an appealing Church, their parking lot “was essential to the existence of the church” and thus was ruled to be exempt from taxation. The Supreme Court further elaborated and set new precedent that any Church property that could be shown to be absolutely essential to the existence of that Church, was fundamentally exempt. Thus did the Camel get his nose under the tent flap!
As I read the transcripts of these Supreme Court cases, I began to see an interpretation of Pennsylvania law that I thought directly applied to our own unique circumstances. It seems clear that the Stone Circle would be exempt as it is easy for most people to accept outdoor worship, and it is about the size of a large church. But what about the other 100 acres of Land that we use. I felt I could show that we have examples of worship here that simply cannot take place without access to the Land, Stones Rising and Native American comes to mind, as does the Spiral Heart intensive. But does that then mean that the Church could not exist without those forms of worship?
The real issue is the camp and its facilities, because they are not ordinarily going to be seen as necessary to that worship, or fulfill the Supreme Courts new test. But as a practical matter, how many people could travel long distances and stay overnight for Moon Services, or make a multi day spiritual commitment to ceremony; if Four Quarters was not in a position to provide the facilities required for that lengthy stay? No water, no kitchen, no parking, no toilets, no open ground for ceremony, no secluded ground for reflection. Well, the clear answer is not very many! In fact, without our facilities, our form of spirituality would be impossible and Four Quarters would simply cease to exist.
With this line of argument in mind I scheduled a meeting with our long time Church Attorney, and after reviewing the documents I had collected, he agreed. We had a new and compelling legal argument for exempting a large fraction of Four Quarters. We then filed our appeal with the County Tax Assessor and received a hearing date in early October, 2009. While waiting for that hearing I created an in depth handout for the Assessors use, that detailed our history and forms of spirituality, along with the development and use of the property. When the hearing day arrived, I and three Members of the Board (yes, they take off work and drive 5 hours for a very brief hearing, such is the life of the BoD) met with the Assessors for a total of 15 minutes. The Assessors were respectful and asked that we give them an additional week or two to review our case. We agreed to the extension and went home.
Time passed. More time passed. November moved into December, the New Year came, departed and still no word from the Assessors. Then in early February a letter arrived from the Tax Board that simply contained copies of the raw tax sheets for the Church's property. After comparing the sheets with our old records, and fair amount of time with a calculator, it became clear that the assessments on the camp had been reduced by 60%. Not just the Stone Circle, but the entirety of the camp, its land and facilities. The Board of Assessors recognized our case and the unique nature with which we practice our spirituality here on the Land.
Another challenge met, another feather to stick in our collective cap, as we continue to sink deep roots into the Land.