Hailed by opponents as the defeat of an excessive taxation scheme, the New York Court of Appeals ruled unanimously yesterday in favor of a local church pressed to pay more to the city.
The court in Albany ruled 7-0 a state statute protects the tax-exempt status of all church-owned parsonages and is not limited to one provided for a church’s “settled leader.”
“The decision means that a city or county cannot grab more tax dollars from a church than it deserves,” said Joseph Infranco, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund.
The ruling in the case of Word of Life Ministries vs. Incorporated Village of Freeport said the statute does not suggest only one church-owned parsonage can be tax exempt.
The village had revoked the tax-exempt status of four church parsonages owned by Word of Life, claiming the parsonages could not be tax exempt because they housed assistant pastors.
Word of Life’s lawsuit contended the state statute does not limit tax exemption to a single spiritual leader, as the village insisted.
The statute states “property owned by a religious corporation while actually used by the officiating clergymen thereof for residential purposes shall be exempt from taxation.”
The court determined ‘officiating clergymen’ does not refer to only one clergy person who presides over subordinates.
“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 wrote.
“As the justices recognized in their decision, all of the pastors for whom the church provided housing easily qualify as officiating clergy,” said Infranco. “They are all ordained, preach at the church, provide counseling, participate in outreach, and are integrally involved in a host of other church activities.”
Infranco noted it was the third ruling against the village on its claims in the case.
“Who knows how many taxpayer dollars they spent trying to find money in the pockets of pastors with extremely modest salaries?” he said.