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Should Courts Get to Define Religion?

Our Lady of La Salette shrine. Jim Henderson, Wiki Commons
Our Lady of La Salette shrine. Jim Henderson, Wiki Commons

 

Property-tax battles are rarely sexy. But a case now in front of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, about whether the 21 religious brothers and sisters who run the Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette in Attleboro should have to pay taxes, could have huge repercussions. The Court’s decision will be an important part of the ongoing debate in America about who defines religious practice—believers or bureaucrats—and whether religion itself should be afforded a special place under the law.

The case centers on a colonial-era law in Massachusetts that exempts religious houses of worship and parsonages from property taxes if they are used for religious worship or instruction. The shrine has enjoyed this perk since its founding in 1953. But in recent years, the City of Attleboro, nestled between Providence and Boston, has faced a tightening budget. It began looking to see where it could collect more revenue. The shrine, the only major tourist attraction in town, was an obvious target for tax collectors.

The city valued the property at $12.8 million, all of which had previously been exempt. But in 2013, officials decided that $4.9 million of that value represented property not used for religious worship or instruction. They declared that a maintenance shed, coffee shop, conference rooms, and a religious bookstore—along with the forest preserve that covers more than half the campus—are used for secular purposes. The shrine, the city decided, had to pay up, and received a $92,000 tax bill.

Read more at The Atlantic. 

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