Do Over: SJC Announces No Decision, Re-Argument in LaSalette Shrine Case
On April 5, 2016, the Supreme Judicial Court heard argument in The Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette v. Bd. of Assessors of Attleboro (SJC-12021). The case addresses the application and interpretation of the property tax exemption applied to religious houses of worship in G.L. c. 59, §5, Clause Eleventh, and raises First Amendment freedom of religion issues and potentially sweeping consequences for churches and other faith-based organizations. Yesterday afternoon, the Court issued a notice that the quorum of Justices that heard argument in the case did not reach a majority decision, and that the case will be re-argued before the Court as now composed.
The composition of the Court has changed significantly since the April 5 argument. Three of the Court's seven justices (Justices Spina, Cordy and Duffly) retired and three new justices (Justices Budd, Lowy and Graziano) joined the Court. With Justice Botsford sitting this case out, half of the quorum to hear this case is new. What this means for the outcome of the case is difficult to predict, but the stakes for houses of worship are high.
The Shrine of Our Lady of LaSalette has existed in Attleboro, Massachusetts since 1953. After years of recognizing the Shrine as tax-exempt in large part, recently, the Town Tax Assessors have changed their tax strategy with respect to the Shrine and have decided to tax the Shrine significantly based on the Assessors' own determination of which of the Shrine's activities qualify as religious worship and which do not.
The Shrine paid the tax under protest, sought an abatement, which was denied, and appealed the Assessors' denial to the Appellate Tax Board. The Appellate Tax Board confirmed the Assessors' decision that portions of the Shrine's property were not tax exempt, and the Shrine appealed.
The SJC took the case on direct Appellate review in December 2015, and sought amicus briefs on the issue of whether the statute's exemption for "houses of religious worship" applies to portions of a taxpayer's property used for "fundraising, charitable, and 'ecospiritual' activities that the taxpayer maintains are part and parcel of its overall religious mission. . ." After hearing argument on April 5, 2016,, on August 23, 2016 the Court issued a notice waiving the 130 day rule, and then entered notice on the docket yesterday afternoon that no decision had been reached.
The docket does not yet reflect a new argument date, but the Court has stated it does not seek additional briefing.
So now we wait. Again.