OZARK AVALON, )
v. ) Appeal Number 00-52500
JAMES LACHNER, ASSESSOR, )
COOPER COUNTY, MISSOURI, )
DECISION AND ORDER
Decision of the Cooper County Board of Equalization sustaining the assessment made by the Assessor and rejecting Complainant’s claim for exemption, SET ASIDE. Subject Property found to be exempt as a religious use property.
Complainant appeared by Counsel, Daniel S. Simon, Columbia, Missouri.
Respondent appeared by Counsel, Douglas Abele, Prosecuting Attorney.
Case heard and decided by Chief Hearing Officer, W. B. Tichenor.
The only issue in this case is Complainant’s entitlement to an exemption on religious and/or charitable grounds.
Complainant appeals the decision of the Cooper County Board of Equalization which sustained the valuation of the subject property. The Assessor determined an appraised value of $8,900 (assessed value of $1,070, as agricultural property). Complainant does not contest either the valuation or classification of the subject property, but appeals on the sole ground of the asserted entitlement to an exemption on religious/charitable grounds. A hearing was conducted on July 12, 2001 at the Cooper County Courthouse, Boonville, Missouri.
The Hearing Officer, having considered all of the competent evidence upon the whole record, enters the following Decision and Order.
The following exhibits were received into evidence on behalf of Complainant.
Exhibit 1 Certificate of Incorporation of Complainant.
Exhibit 2 Letter to Cooper County Commission requesting documents, with copies of documents requested attached.
Exhibit 3 Subdivision Restriction Indenture.
Exhibit 4 Letter from Shelby County Assessor.
Exhibit 5 Affidavit of Tax-Exempt Status from Cedar County.
Exhibit 6 Affidavit of Tax-Exempt Status from Madison County.
Exhibit 7 List of Exempt Properties in Cooper County.
Exhibit 8 Application for Exemption, Form 1023 for Complainant.
Exhibit 9 IRS Exemption Letter for Complainant.
Exhibit 10 Letters to Respondent from members of Complainant.
Exhibit 11 Letter from President of Complainant.
Exhibit 12 Letter to ACLU, with attachments.
Exhibit 13 Letter to Complainant.
Exhibit 14 Articles of Incorporation of Complainant.
Exhibit 15 Bylaws of Complainant.
Exhibit 16 Income and Expense Statement of Complainant.
Exhibit 17 Photographs of Complainant’s property and activities at the property.
Exhibit 18 Affidavits of Tax-Exempt Status from various counties.
Exhibit 19 Written Direct Testimony of the President/Secretary, Robert Thomas Dixon, III and Treasurer, Rose Wise, of Complainant.
Mr. Dixon testified under cross-examination, redirect examination and questions by the Hearing Officer. There was no cross-examination of Ms. Wise.
Respondent presented no evidence.
FINDINGS OF FACT
1. Jurisdiction over this appeal is proper. Complainant timely appealed to the State Tax Commission from the decision of the Cooper County Board of Equalization. Complaint for Review of Assessment; Board of Equalization Letter, dated July 27, 2000.
2. The property in this appeal is located at 26213 Cumberland Church Road, Boonville, Cooper County, Missouri and identified as parcel number 82993. Complaint for Review of Assessment. Respondent valued this property at $8,900 (assessed value $1,070). Exhibit 2, Property Record Card. Complainant does not dispute this value.
3. The subject property (church site) consists of a tract of land of approximately 84 to 87 acres. Tr. 12, Lines 21-22; Exhibit 2, Property Record Card. There is a shed on the church site in which camping supplies for use of individuals are kept and a pre-Civil war farmhouse that has been converted to a retreat center with four bunk rooms. No one resides permanently in the retreat center or on the church site. Tr. 18, Lines 4 – 17.
4. Complainant (Ozark Avalon) is a not-for-profit religious corporation and is exempt from income taxation under the Internal Revenue Code. Exhibits 1, 8, 9, 14 and 15.
5. Ozark Avalon is organized exclusively for religious, educational and charitable purposes within the meaning of Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 (as amended) to be a church offering worship services and religious education classes, and to do any and all things which may be necessary or proper in connection with these purposes. Exhibit 14.
6. Ozark Avalon is a Wiccan church. Exhibit 19, Q & A 9 & 11.
7. The church site is used to provide a safe place for outdoor worship in an earth-centered, earth honoring spiritual context, to promote community among persons with these beliefs and practices and to further environmentalism and appreciation for nature spirits and the earth. The church site is the land owned by Ozark Avalon on which the congregation worships. It is necessary to the mission of Ozark Avalon as a church. Exhibit 19, Q & A 9, 10 & 19.
8. Wicca is a religion of nature. The worship and celebration cycles coincide with the seasons of the year. Worshiping in a religion of nature depends significantly on access to nature. Worship services and weekend retreats are the primary activities conducted on the church site. Retreats are held to celebrate the eight Wiccan holidays each calendar year. Retreats foster inter-generational fellowship, community, religious education, and worship. The Saturday evening worship service is the culmination of each weekend retreat, held (weather dependent) out of doors. At retreats religious education classes are tied thematically to the liturgical year. Personal relationship with God and Goddess is presented through the stories and lessons of the holiday appropriate for that season. Retreats generally start at 5 p.m. on a Friday and end at
12 p.m. on Sunday, or Monday in the case of a 3 day weekend. There are separate children’s religious education tracks at most retreats. Adult only services are provided twice a year for addressing marital and relationship issues. Exhibit 19, Q & A 11,12, 13, 14, 49, 51, 64, 65, 66, 67, 68, 69 & 70.
9. Wicca is a religion based on the concept of personal responsibility, the interconnectedness of all life and the call to serve God and Goddess through ecological living and stewardship of the Earth. Ozark Avalon follows the Wiccan Rede – an it harm none, do as thou will. Applied to everyday life, this means each action must be weighed against possible harm to others, including one’s self. Combined with the attitude that one is related to, not set above, all other life, Wicca is a rather peaceful religion. Ozark Avalon believes and lives the Wiccan Three Fold Law – whatsoever you do shall be returned to you three fold. This is a statement of relationships. It is the moral equivalent of the Christian adage – do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Exhibit 19, Q & A 76, 77 & 79.
10. Wicca full moon ceremonies are held on the Saturday nearest the full moon. A typical Wiccan worship experience starts with creating a circle, i.e., a setting aside of a particular space for a sacred purpose. Prayers of invocation are said at each cardinal point of the circle, asking for the blessing of each element at that point. Prayers of invocation are said for God and Goddess, asking for the blessing of the worship about to commence. The worship to be done may take a wide array of purposes; a wedding, a funeral, an infant naming, a request for healing, a homily on a particular subject, or a simple celebration of community. Following the worship is a period of general communion. Food and drink are often served, and announcements of community interest are made. God and Goddess are then praised, thanked, and released, as are the elements at each cardinal point of the circle. The circle is then opened. Song and dance is considered appropriate at all points of the worship experience. The purpose of Wicca worship is to offer thanks and prayers to God and Goddess, to establish a feeling of spiritual growth and inter-dependence between each other and all living things, to bring one closer to God and Goddess through prayer, song, dance, and community, to share fellowship and worship with fellows of like mind and to mark the passing of the seasons. Exhibit 19, Q & A 15, 16 & 52
11. The activities of worship, religious education classes, group discussion, individual contemplation and meditation in a natural surrounding are designed to promote understanding of God and Goddess in the Wicca church. Exhibit 19, Q & A 53.
12. The are currently 72 members of Ozark Avalon. The membership has been increasing steadily for the last five years. A typical worship service will have 5-10 members and 10-15 non-members, though summer time services have been as high as 50 attendees. Approximately 95% of members are returning worshipers. The number of attenders at a retreat will vary. The largest retreat is during Labor Day weekend, the traditional congregational meeting weekend. During this time, 40-50 members will be present along with 30-40 non-members. Exhibit 19, Q & A, 22, 23, 24, 25, 30 & 36.
13. The vast majority of the religious activities held on the church site are inter-generational and open to both males and females. There are religious education classes for toddlers through elders. The Wicca worship incorporates customs from European, Native American and African traditions, since Ozark Avalon has members from all of these backgrounds. Ozark Avalon opens its doors to people of all faiths. Persons of many backgrounds worship on the church site, including Christians, Jews, Muslims and others. Children attending Ozark Avalon services are exposed to many traditions in a broad religious education. The Yule retreat includes children’s stories from the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah and the African-American Kwanzaa. Several of the children are of different faiths or mixed faith families. There are 12 current members who are children and 6 more actively working towards membership. Children’s religious education is age-appropriate. Ozark Avalon offers a week-long day-camp for children in the spring. Exhibit 19, Q & A, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 55, 78 & 82.
14. Work weekends are held at the church site. These weekends are opportunities for volunteers to do retreat preparation, facility repair and maintenance. They can be used as contributions to the church and are recognized equally with cash donations. They are also a chance to live the ideals of service to the community and to the environment of the sacred earth held by members of Ozark Avalon. Activities during the work weekends include preparing the land for religious worship, brush hogging meadows, child care for other workers, clearing trails, clearing worship areas, cutting firewood, digging and lining new and existing fire pits, emptying the composting toilets, hauling sand and gravel to the lake, helping to cook lunch, maintaining the floating dock at the lake, maintaining the plumbing for the showers, making items for the worship service, planting seeds and weeding the garden. These activities are conducted by volunteer labor in order to repair and maintain the church physical plant (the church site – subject land). It is the goal of the work weekends to maintain the church site, to train members in the day to day operations of the church and the church site, fellowship with one another and do service to God and Goddess through stewardship of the land. Because Ozark Avalon believes the earth is the sacred manifestation of God and Goddess, and that service to the environment honors the sacredness of the individual and all of nature, the work weekend activities enhance the individual’s personal relationship with God and Goddess. Separate age appropriate activities and tasks for the children are included in the work weekends. Exhibit 19, Q & A, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 61 & 63.
15. Ozark Avalon provides different opportunities outside of traditional worship service to its members, these include, pastoral counseling, hospital visits, care and sheltering of those in need and marital counseling. Clergy are available for one to one counseling, meditation, and hospital visits when needed. Ozark Avalon collects money, arranges services and otherwise coordinates help for members or others in need. The church also participates in interfaith canned food and clothing drives. The church has provided shelter to the homeless, need-based scholarship for retreats and special accommodations for those with disabilities. Exhibit 19, Q & A 71, 72 & 73.
16. There is no charge to attend worship services at the church site. The camping retreats do have a suggested donation level to cover costs. There has always been an option to make a donation of labor rather than monies. There is also a policy of waiving a donation for cases of hardship. Exhibit 19, Q & A 86.
17. Under the beliefs of Wicca any particular natural setting is appropriate for worship and religious education. The church will organize religious services around a particular section of the church grounds to facilitate the needs of the congregants and the service being performed. The environment of the church grounds is important to the advancement of the religion of Ozark Avalon. Nature is a manifestation of God and Goddess. This view of God and Goddess existing within nature is referred to theologically as immanence, and has been linked to another theological idea known as continuous creation. According to this theological notion, God and Goddess did not create only one time and then back away from the world, but they create continually and moment to moment. That is why God and Goddess can act and express through nature. Nature in this view is the ever created embodiment of God and Goddess at any particular moment. Exhibit 19, Q & A, 90 & 91.
18. Religious education classes and worship services are held in particular groves and meadows. These areas are decorated with rustic furniture, lectern areas and fire pits. During inclement weather, the retreat center is used for religious education and worship. The meadows and groves are described as Glen Avalon, Wolf Tree Glen, Red Bud Circle, the Shelves, Lake Caia and the Sweat Lodge. These areas are scattered throughout the church site. Each site is suitable for the church’s various religious education classes and worship services. Each are used according to the type of class or service being conducted and the number of people attending. Exhibits 17 & 19, Q & A 92, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98 and 99.
19. The list of Exempt Properties for Cooper County lists a total of 70 parcels of real property that are exempt for use as churches, church parsonages, or church parking lots. Exhibit 7.
20. There are nine church camp properties in the counties of Shelby, Cedar, Madison, Cole and Crawford Counties consisting of acreages of 160, 172, 518, 40, 124, 120, 363, 184 and 159 which are tax exempt due to use for religious purposes. Exhibits 4, 5, 6 & 18.
21. Robert Thomas Dixon, III, serves as priest for Ozark Avalon. He is ordained by the Universal Life Church of California. Ozark Avalon is currently working on creating its own ordination. The ordaining will incorporate written doctrine and teaching materials in about a five-year tract study. Once that has been put in place the church will ordain its own priests. TR. 8, Line 1 – Tr. 9, Line 14.
22. Ozark Avalon believes in God and Goddess as the manifestations of a single deity. In Ozark Avalon belief, God and Goddess are manifested through nature. This manifestation of a deity as God and Goddess is viewed as comparable to a manifestation of deity through Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Individual members may also possess beliefs in natural objects rather than a Supreme Being. This is a matter of individual interpretation. Tr. 10, Line 4 – Tr. 11, Line 8.
23. Ozark Avalon’s belief in the manifestation of a single deity as God and Goddess is a doctrine of belief in a supreme being, which is the Supreme Being for adherents to the Ozark Avalon (Wiccan) faith.
24. Upon dissolution, Ozark Avalon is required to distribute its assets according to sections 355.661 through 355.746, RSMo. Exhibit 14.
25. The subject property is not leased to anyone for farming operations or for harvesting of timber. Tr. 17, Lines 16-22.
26. Complainant’s evidence was substantial and persuasive to rebut the presumption of correct assessment by the Board of Equalization. The subject property is actually and regularly used exclusively for religious worship and for purposes purely charitable and not held for private or corporate profit.
CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
The Commission has jurisdiction to hear this appeal and correct any assessment which is shown to be unlawful, unfair, arbitrary or capricious. Article X, section 14, Mo. Const. of 1945; Sections 138.430, 138.431, RSMo. The hearing officer shall issue a decision and order affirming, modifying or reversing the determination of the board of equalization, and correcting any assessment which is unlawful, unfair, improper, arbitrary, or capricious. Section 138.431.4, RSMo.
Board of Equalization Presumption
There is a presumption of validity, good faith and correctness of assessment by the County Board of Equalization. Hermel, Inc. v. STC, 564 S.W.2d 888, 895 (Mo. banc 1978); Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad Co. v. STC, 436 S.W.2d 650, 656 (Mo. 1968); May Department Stores Co. v. STC, 308 S.W.2d 748, 759 (Mo. 1958).
Burden of Proof
Although a taxing statute is construed strictly against the state, an exemption statute is strictly construed against the one claiming the exemption. State ex rel. Union Electric Co. v. Goldberg, 578 S.W.2d 921, 923 (Mo. banc 1979). In order to prevail, Complainant must demonstrate by substantial and persuasive evidence, that it is entitled to an exemption.
Substantial evidence is that evidence which, if true, has probative force upon the issues, i.e., evidence favoring facts which are such that reasonable men may differ as to whether it established them, and from which the Commission can reasonably decide an appeal on the factual issues. Cupples-Hesse Corporation v. State Tax Commission, 329 S.W.2d 696, 702 (Mo. 1959).
Persuasive evidence is that evidence which has sufficient weight and probative value to convince the trier of fact. The persuasiveness of evidence does not depend on the quantity or amount thereof but on its effect in inducing belief. Brooks v. General Motors Assembly Division, 527 S.W.2d 50, 53 (Mo. App. 1975).
Complainant bears the burden of establishing, by substantial evidence, every element to support its claim for tax relief. The failure to establish an essential element results in the failure of Complainant to carry its burden of proof. Steward v. Goetz, 945 S.W.2d 520 (Mo. App. 1997); Breckenridge v. Meierhoffer-Fleeman Funeral Home, Inc., 941 S.W.2d 609 (Mo. App. 1997). Complainant fails to prove its case, when the evidence on an essential element leaves the trier of fact in the nebulous twilight of speculation, conjecture and surmise. Rossman v. G.F.C. Corp of Mo., 596 S.W.2d 469, 472 (Mo. App. 1980); Hawkins v. Whittenberg, 587 S.W.2d 358, 261 (Mo. App. 1979); Shelton v. Bruner, 449 S.W.2d 673, 680 (Mo. App. 1969).
Properties which can be exempted from taxation are set out within our Constitution and the statutes enacted to enforce that Constitution, to wit:
. . .all property, real and personal, not held for private or corporate profit and used exclusively for religious worship, for schools and colleges, for purposes purely charitable, . . .may be exempt from taxation by general law but any such law may provide for approximate restitution to the respective political subdivisions of revenues lost by reason of the exemption. All laws exempting from taxation property other than the property enumerated in this article, shall be void. Article X, Section 6, Mo. Const. of 1945.
In support of this Constitutional provision, the Legislature has enacted Section 137.100, RSMo 2000, which provides in relevant part:
The following property shall be exempt from taxation:
(5) All property, real and personal, actually and regularly used exclusively for religious worship, for schools and colleges, or for purposes purely charitable and not held for private or corporate profit, except that the exemption herein granted does not include real property not actually used or occupied for the purpose of the organization but held or used as investment even though the income or rentals received therefrom is used wholly for religious, education or charitable purposes; Section 137.100, RSMo 2000.
In order for a property to be exempt from taxation for state, county or local purposes as a charitable use, the following tests must be met:
1. The property must be actually and regularly used exclusively for a charitable purpose, as charity is defined by Salvation Army v. Hoehn, 188 S.W.2d 826 (Mo. banc 1945). “Charity” is therein defined as “. . .a gift, to be applied consistently with existing laws, for the benefit of an indefinite number of persons, either by bringing their hearts under the influence of education or religion, by relieving their bodies of disease, suffering or constraint, by assisting them to establish themselves for life, or by erecting or maintaining the public buildings or works or otherwise lessening the burdens of government.” Salvation Army at 830.
2. The property must be owned and operated on a not-for-profit basis. The property “must be dedicated unconditionally to the charitable activity in such a way that there will be no profit, presently or prospectively, to individuals or corporations. Any gain achieved in use of the building must be devoted to achievement of the charitable objectives of the project.” Franciscan Tertiary Province v. State Tax Commission, 566 S.W.2d 213, at 224 (Mo. banc 1978).
3. The dominant use of the property must be for the benefit of an indefinite number of persons and must directly or indirectly benefit society generally. “It is required that there be the element of direct or indirect benefit to society in addition to and as a result of the benefit conferred on the persons directly served by the humanitarian activity.” Franciscan at 224. See also, Barnes Hospital v. Leggett, 589 S.W.2d 241 (Mo. banc 1979).
The constitutional and statutory term religious worship of Art. X, Sec. 6 and Section 137.100, RSMo embody as a minimum requirement a belief in the Supreme Being. Missouri Church of Scientology v. STC, 560 S.W.2d 837, 842 (Mo.banc 1977).
The phrase used exclusively in the constitutional and statutory provisions relating to exemption has reference to the primary and inherent use of the property and not to a mere secondary and incidental use. Pentecostal Church of God of America v. Hughlett, 602 S.W.2d 666 ( App. 1980); Missouri United Methodist Retirement Homes v. STC, 522 S.W.2d 745 (Mo. 1975); State ex rel. Spillers v. Johnston, 113 S.W. 1083 (Mo. 1908).
Church of Wicca
The Church of Wicca is a religion entitled to the protection of the first amendment of the United States Constitution. Dettmer v. Landon, 799 F.2d 929 (4th Cir. 1986).
Each tax exemption case is peculiarly one which must be decided upon its own facts. It is the public policy of the state that property actually and regularly used exclusively for religious and/or charitable purposes shall be exempt from taxation, and taxing authorities are not to be permitted to defeat that policy by unreasonable or unrealistic application of the “strict construction” rule. Missouri United Methodist Retirement Homes v. State Tax Commission, 522 S.W.2d 745, 751 (Mo. banc 1975). However, Complainant has a “substantial burden” to establish that the property in question qualifies for an exemption. Franciscan Tertiary Province v. State Tax Commission, 566 S.W.2d 213, 224 (Mo. banc 1978).
In the present case, the burden to be met requires that Complainant bring forth substantial and persuasive evidence that the primary and inherent use of the subject property is for a religious purpose and that the property is not held for private or corporate profit. Preceeding the burden to prove use and not held for profit is the burden to establish that the religious worship of Ozark Avalon embodies as a minimum requirement a belief in the Supreme Being.
Belief in Supreme Being
On December 19, 1977, the Supreme Court of Missouri, En Banc, issued its decision in the Church of Scientology case, supra. In that case the Court affirmed the State Tax Commission’s denial of exemption. The Court in essence deferred to the Commission’s determination that there was not sufficient credible evidence presented by the taxpayer on a single critical element. That element was the taxpayer’s failure, in the view of the Commission, that it held a devotion to the worship of the Supreme Being (Hearing Officer’s emphasis). The Commission concluded that being devoted to the worship of the Supreme Being was necessary for the property owner to have its property considered exclusively for religious worship. Scientology, at 845, Appendix- Commission’s Conclusion of Law 8. The Court in affirming the Commission adopted the standard of worship of the Supreme Being for religious exemption cases.
The Supreme Being
It is interesting and noteworthy that in the Scientology decision, the Commission made a conclusion of law relating to the Supreme Being. It is likewise fascinating that the term supreme being was used and was capitalized by both the Commission and the Court in each respective decision. Both of these notable items needs to be addressed in the present case.
Use of Definite Article
The use of the definite article (the) as opposed to an indefinite article (a or an) is used to refer to a specific or particular person or thing. The indefinite article on the other hand is used to refer to one, or one sort of, a person or thing. Specifically, the standard for religious worship under Scientology is a devotion to a specific supreme being, not just a supreme being. However, neither the Commission nor the Court, in Scientology, set forth who or what this specific, particular religious entity was or is.
The definite article requires devotion to the specific deity. Spiritual devotion to just any deity cannot suffice. While it might be comforting to Jews, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian groups not considered to be Protestants and Muslims that the Supreme Being is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Allah, such a line of demarcation results in those of Buddhist, Hindu, Native American, Taoist, Confucianist and various other religious entities whose Supreme Being is not the God recognized generally by those labeled as Jews, Christians and Muslims, being denied tax exempt status for their religious sites because theirs is not a religious devotion to the Supreme Being. Such a standard in effect restricts the definiton of religious worship or religion to conventional orthodox religions. Scientology, at 845 – Concuring in Result of Judge Sieler. If on the other hand, the Supreme Being is a Hindu god then churches, mosques and synagogues throughout the state have been wrongly granted religious exemptions, because of a religious devotion to the wrong Supreme Being.
The use of the definite article in the Scientology decisions results in a standard that cannot be uniformily applied in the granting of religious exemptions. It would require, if truely applied, an investigation by the Hearing Officer into the issue of whether a specific religious group possessed a belief in the proper or true Supreme Being. This is simply a task which neither the Hearing Officer, the Commission, nor any Court is competent to do, since matters of spiritual or religious conscience, specifically as they might relate to who or what is supreme, fall beyond the pale of any judicial or governmental body to decide.
Use of the term Supreme Being
The use of the term Supreme Being in its capitalized as well as uncapitalized form should also be considered. The word supreme simply means highest in rank, power, authority, dominant. Webster’s New World Dictionary. This gives some explanation as to the use of the definite article. There cannot be different supreme beings, one must be the highest in rank, power and authority. If the god of Jews, Christians and Muslims is supreme then the god of Hindus, or the god of Native Americans cannot be supreme. (The Hearing Officer recognizes that Jews, Christians and Muslims may not agree that their god is one and the same.)
The term supreme being in its capitalized form is nothing other than a reference to god in its capitalized form – God. Webster’s New World Dictionary. By requiring, in order to obtain a tax exemption for religious purposes, a devotion to the worship of the Supreme Being the Commission and the Supreme Court of Missouri did in fact require nothing more or less than worship of God, without further identifying God.
The forgoing analysis illustrates the inherent danger in judicial or quasi-judicial governmental entities attempting to enter into the arena of determining what is or is not of a religious nature for a given group held together by religious or spiritual beliefs and doctrines. It also illustrates that the Scientology standard in a strict, literal sense cannot be applied by comparing the doctrine of one group concerning what or who is a supreme being for purposes of their faith to another faith group and its doctrine on the same subject. In other words, the comparision of what a Baptist views as god or supreme being is not the appropriate standard to determine if what a Buddist views as god or supreme being is correct.
In the specific case at hand, the concept of God in an orthodox Jewish, Christian or Islamic sense is not the criterion to be applied in reaching a determination of whether Ozark Avalon’s belief concerning God and Goddess is devotion to the Supreme Being. The term Supreme Being must be given the widest possible reading and definition. It will not suffice for a narrow, strict, technical meaning to be given to this phrase, for a stringent meaning can only result in the government giving benefit to those of one religious faith and denying the same to those of other religious faiths in violation of the Non-establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Such a course of action would have the effect of a denial of equal protection by preferring some religions over others – an invidious discrimination that would transgress the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. See, United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 188, Douglas Concurring Opinion. The term Supreme Being must be read within the context of the teachings, doctrines and practices of the specific religious faith under consideration, not some other faith.
All of the forgoing notwithstanding, Ozark Avalon’s belief encompasses faith in and devotion to what it considers to be Supreme Being. The form of manifestation for Supreme Being in the faith and practice of Ozark Avalon is irrelevant. Part and parcel of the worship of Ozark Avalon is its recognition of Supreme Being – God and Goddess – as contained within the tenents of its creed or statement of faith.
Ozark Avalon satisfies the requirement of devotion to Supreme Being in order for the Hearing Officer to address the issue of whether the church site is used regularly and exclusively for religious worship.
Use of Church Site
The evidence brought forth by Complainant clearly and without question establishes that the primary and inherent use of the Ozark Avalon property is for religious worship. All of the activities which are conducted by the church on the church site are interwoven within the religious practices and beliefs of Ozark Avalon. All of the activities which are conducted at the monthly worship services, the special holiday retreats and other events held on the church site are comparable to any number of activities which would be conducted at various church camps of what would be recognized generally as mainline Protestant denominations throughout Missouri.
The fact that the church site for Ozark Avalon encompasses various groves, glens, trails and other grass or woodland areas, used at different times, on the subject site does not render the use of the subject property as non-religious. The various worship and religious teaching areas on the total tract of land are all utilized in conjunction with and as a part of the religious practices, education and fellowship of this particular church.
Ozark Avalon’s worship practices do not fit neatly within the boundaries or standards that one might draw if using a Roman Catholic or Protestant church as the pattern for what is proper or acceptable religion. On the other hand, the worship practices of Baptists and Methodists do not fit within the pattern one might draw if using Ozark Avalon as the template for permissible religion. Fortunately, the radical experiment of religious liberty undertaken early in the life of this nation permits the very type of religious diversity that is evidenced in a comparison between a Christ-centered faith and a Nature-centered faith.
It is clear that Ozark Avalon is not a part of Christian orthodoxy. It does not have to be to be granted a tax exemption. Its use of the subject property is a religious use under Section 137.100, RSMo. This religious use requires the property to be exemption from taxation.
The only remaining element which must be met is that the property which is used for a religious purpose must not be held for present or future profit. There is no profit generated by the use of the church site. Income to Ozark Avalon is used for its religious purpose just as income (contributions) to any mainline Christian church is not profit but income used for a religious purpose. The property being owned by a not for profit corporation comes under the statutory provisions relating to disposition of the property upon dissolution, which requires that upon dissolution any proceeds remaining after payment of debts must be transferred to another not for profit corporation. Section 355.691, RSMo. Accordingly, Complainant satisfies the not held for profit requirement.
Franciscan Charitable Use
The Hearing Officer is persuaded that the above discussion has properly addressed the standard for granting of a religious worship exemption. However, in order to not be charged with negligence in the rendering of this decision, a brief analysis under the Franciscan case will be provided.
The three elements under Franciscan are:
1. Actual and regular primary and inherent use must be for a charitable purpose.
2. Property owned and operated on a not for profit basis.
3. Dominate use benefits an indefinite number of people and society directly or indirectly.
Charitable purpose includes and encompasses bringing the hearts of individuals under the influence of religion. The actual and regular use of the subject property is for the purpose of bringing the hearts of those individuals who attend worship services at the church site under the influence of the Ozark Avalon (Wiccan) religion. There is no charge to attend services. There is no membership fee. Ozark Avalon members freely contribute to the support of their church just as adherents to various other religious faiths voluntarily provide financial support for their individual religious entities. There is no restriction in membership based upon age, gender, or race. There is not even any restriction based upon religious faith, since individuals who are other faiths are welcome to take part in the religious practices of Ozark Avalon at the church site.
Not For Profit Ownership and Operation
The subject property is both owned and operated on a not for profit basis. As a not for profit corporation the property is dedicated unconditionally to the charitable activity of bringing hearts under the influence of the Wiccan religion. Any gain that may be achieved in the use of the church site is devote to the advancement of the religious objectives of Ozark Avalon. Upon dissolution any assets remaining after payment of debts are required to be transferred to another not for profit, 501(c)(3) corporation.
Benefit for Indefinite Number of Persons and Society
Since there is not a closed membership, the dominate use of the church site is for the benefit of an indefinite number of persons. Anyone who desires to unite with Ozark Avalon as a follower of the Wiccan religion or is of another faith but desires to take part in the religious activities of Ozark Avalon may do so. The religious nature of Ozark Avalon provides an indirect benefit to society in general, in the same manner that society is benefited by having adherents of different faiths free to practice, express and follow their individual religion. The principle of religious liberty embodied within the First Amendment of the United States Constitution is the specific recognition of the overall benefit to society of permitting the exercise of various and sundry religious faiths in our nation.
The use of the subject church site meets the standards of Franciscan as a charitable use for a religious purpose.
Size of Church Site
The fact that the subject church site is in excess of 80 acres is out of the ordinary when compared to the amount of land that might be require to support a meeting house of a rural or urban religious entity. Given that a mainline Protestant congregation in a city might not require more than an acre or two for its church building and supporting parking area, it would appear that the Ozark Avalon church site is excessive. However, the determination for an exemption for religious purposes is not based upon any set standard for size of the land to be exempted.
It is clear that the religious activities of Ozark Avalon require a different type of facility, specifically open air, out of doors, than what Catholics, Baptists or Methodists might need. Although the Ozark Avalon congregation does in cases of inclement weather conduct services indoors, that is not their regular practice. The use of the subject church site is more in the nature of a church camp site. Church camps of varying sizes are exempted from taxation throughout the state of Missouri, because of their religious use. The size of such facilities is not a factor to deny exemption, so long as the actual, regular and primary use is consistent with the overall religious purpose. See, Finding of Fact 20, supra.
The determination by the Assessor and sustained by the Board of Equalization for Cooper County that the subject property is not exempt from taxation is SET ASIDE.
The Assessor and Clerk of Cooper County are ordered to place the subject property on the list of exempt properties for said county.
A party may file with the Commission an application for review of a hearing officer decision within thirty (30) days of the mailing of such decision. The application shall contain specific detailed grounds upon which it is claimed the decision is erroneous. Failure to state specific facts or law upon which the appeal is based will result in summary denial. Section 138.432, RSMo 2000.
If an application for review of a hearing officer decision is made to the Commission, any protested taxes presently in an escrow account in accordance with these appeals shall be held pending the final decision of the Commission. If no application for review is received by the Commission within thirty (30) days, this decision and order is deemed final and the Collector of Cooper County as well as the collectors of all affected political subdivisions therein, shall disburse the protested taxes presently in an escrow account in accord with the decision on the underlying assessment in these appeals. If any protested taxes have been disbursed pursuant to Section 139.031(8), RSMo, Complainant may apply to the circuit court having jurisdiction of the cause for disposition of the protested taxes held by the taxing authority.
Any Finding of Fact which is a Conclusion of Law or Decision shall be so deemed. Any Decision which is a Finding of Fact or Conclusion of Law shall be so deemed.
SO ORDERED August 8, 2001.
STATE TAX COMMISSION OF MISSOURI
W. B. Tichenor
Chief Hearing Officer