Giving Hope to a Church with a Major Tax Dilemma
July 13, 2011
The Long Island Community Fellowship is a Christian church that welcomes the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community of Long Island. The church believes strongly in the idea of community building, social outreach, and equality. From the congregation’s first gathering in a conference room, the church has grown in numbers and influence.
To accommodate new members as well as existing members, The Long Island Community Fellowship decided it needed a new, larger location. It bought a piece of residential property and planned to eventually convert it to a church. In the meantime the church’s leader, Rev. Shane Hibbs, took up residence in the existing house; and the church applied for a parsonage exemption. A parsonage exemption allows property owned by religious organizations a full exemption from local property taxes. By statute, the exemption is mandatory and not subject to interpretation by the local tax assessor. The town, however, denied the Long Island Community Fellowship the exemption.
Faced with a substantial annual real property tax bill and an assessor apparently unwilling to grant them the exemption they deserved, the church sought help. Will Meyer was referred the case by another attorney in 2006. Seeing that the church was just starting up and had little income, Will and a colleague took the case on a pro bono basis. They believed the matter would be as simple and straightforward as bringing the misapplication of the law to the attention of the town attorney, but unfortunately, were ultimately forced to take the town to court in an Article 78 proceeding. After three and a half years of litigation, Farrell Fritz was able to gain the church’s parsonage exemption in an interesting decision in which the judge applied the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). The judge found that the town’s actions constituted an unreasonable restraint on the church’s exercise of religion. Will Meyer is hopeful that the decision will stand; however, an appeal by the town may surface in the near future.