LDS Tax Exemption Restored; Apartment Qualifies as a Convent, Top Court Decides
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not have to pay property taxes on a Montgomery County apartment complex where it houses religious workers, the state’s highest court held Wednesday.
The Court of Appeals said the apartment qualified for a property tax exemption as a “convent,” which is contrary to the determination by the Supervisor of Assessments of Montgomery County and the Maryland Tax Court, an executive-branch agency.
The church was seeking to reinstate its exemption for the building, which houses visiting workers who generally spend two years serving at the church’s Washington D.C. Temple in Kensington.
“We are pleased to hear that the Maryland Court of Appeals upheld a status that has been in place for almost three decades,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins said in an emailed statement.
The Maryland Tax Court had said the property could not be considered a convent because workers don’t take vows of poverty, chastity or obedience, make lifetime commitments or earn and work communally and “the dictionary definitions of convent and monastery do not include married men and women and single persons living separate lives in separate households.”
However, the Court of Appeals said it must be “mindful of the dangers in adopting a definition that adheres too closely to the doctrine of a single religion,” such as “the Roman Catholic or Anglican traditions.”
After finding the statute and the legislative history silent, the state’s highest court used dictionary definitions given by both sides and classifications used in other courts to determine that a convent is “a community of people who live together, follow strict religious vows and devote themselves full-time to religious work.”
“We don’t see this as changing the law very much, we see this as clarifying the statutory definition of a convent to make it clear that it can include nontraditional facilities,” said an attorney for the church, Lauri E. Cleary of Lerch, Early & Brewer Chtd. in Bethesda. “We appreciate the court being sensitive to the diversity of faith communities in Maryland and demonstrating a willingness to ensure the legal rules are appropriately inclusive to that diversity.”
Assistant Attorney General Bill Hammond, one of the attorneys for the Tax Court, said any clarification of the law helps his office more easily administer the law.
“Our legal research and our administrative practice resulted in a different test than Court of Appeals enunciated,” Hammond said. “Like any other test, reasonable minds can differ on what that test would be.”
The temple, with its iconic gold spires, opened in 1974. According to the opinion, about 50 ordinance workers teach, instruct, minister and counsel church members there.
The workers are usually retired married couples serving two-year service terms. They often come from out of state and are housed in the apartment complex, located about a mile from the temple in Kensington. The workers are not paid and are charged below-market rents, the opinion said.
The church’s original request for an exemption was approved by Montgomery County’s Property Tax Assessment Appeals Board in 1980. The exemption stood until 2008, at which time the supervisor of assessments reviewed exempt properties in the county and decided the complex didn’t qualify.
The Maryland Tax Court affirmed that decision, but the Montgomery County Circuit Court reversed.
The circuit court said ordinance workers do live a communal lifestyle, worshipping together on Sundays and studying religious materials in a study group; they work without wages at the temple; and they take vows of marital chastity.
The Court of Appeals affirmed the circuit court’s ruling after the department appealed.
Reprinted with permission of The Daily Record Co. © 2013