Monday, August 08, 2005

Town Taxes Church

The Scituate tax board is ordering the Archdiocese of Boston to pay property taxes on St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church, saying church leaders' plan to close the parish negates its tax-exempt status. The church is among more than 80 that the archdiocese has sought to close as part of the consolidation brought on by declining attendance and persistent financial struggles. On Tuesday, the Scituate Board of Assessors voted 2-1 to bill the archdiocese $42,000 in taxes annually, based on an assessment of $4.45 million for the 30-acre property. "My feeling is if they decided they no longer want to use it as a church, I would consider it a taxable property," board chairman Fred Avila said. As religious institutions, churches are exempt from paying property taxes under state law. St. Frances Xavier Cabrini has not been used for worship services for the past nine months, but a group of parishioners have been staging an around-the-clock vigil since October to keep it open. It is one of about a half-dozen parishes where such sit-ins have hampered the archdiocese's efforts to close churches. "We certainly disagree with the position" of the Scituate tax board, archdiocese spokesman Terrence Donilon said. "It is still a blessed church. People are still in vigil there."
Scituate tax officials said they expected the archdiocese would challenge their decision, which could go before the state Appellate Tax Board and then the state courts. Scituate appears to be the first Massachusetts town to propose taxing a church targeted for closure, but tax assessors in other towns where parishioners are staging vigils told reporters they are considering similar moves. Secretary of State William F. Galvin, who registers nonprofit institutions, said the Scituate case leads to the broader question of what is and isn't a nonprofit. However he said he supports the tax board's decision. A Galvin spokesman did not immediately return a call for comment on Friday. The archdiocese plans to close 80 of its 357 parishes as part of the realignment announced last year. Sixty-two parishes have already closed, 14 more are scheduled to be shut down and six -- including St. Frances -- await word on appeals to the Vatican.