The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

In the Matter of Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, Inc.


From In the Matter of Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, Inc. (N.Y. Nov. 18, 2014):

Petitioner, a not-for-profit religious corporation that owns real property in the Town of Catskill, commenced proceedings pursuant to CPLR article 78 and RPTL article 7 after respondent Board of Assessment and Review for the Town refused petitioner's 2009, 2010 and 2011 applications for tax-exempt status pursuant to RPTL 420-a. Under that provision, real [*2]property owned by a corporation that is "organized and conducted exclusively" for charitable and/or religious purposes, if "used exclusively" for such purposes, "shall be exempt from taxation" (RPTL 420-a [1] [a]). We have defined the term "exclusively" as used in this context "to connote 'principal' or 'primary,' such that purposes and uses merely 'auxiliary or incidental to the main and exempt purpose' and use will not defeat the exemption'" (Matter of Yeshivath Shearith Hapletah v Assessor of Town of Fallsburg, 79 NY2d 244, 249 [1992], quoting Matter of Association of Bar of City of N.Y. v Lewisohn, 34 NY2d 143, 153 [1974]).

After a non-jury trial, where petitioner called four witnesses and respondents called none, the trial court dismissed the petitions on the ground that the religious and charitable uses of the subject property were incidental to petitioner's primary, non-exempt use of providing affordable cooperative housing. The Appellate Division reversed and granted the petitions, holding that the testimony at trial by petitioner's witnesses demonstrated that petitioner "uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes" and was therefore entitled to a property tax exemption for the years in question (111 AD3d 1098, 1102 [3d Dept 2013]).

The Appellate Division properly granted the petitions. Petitioner adequately established its entitlement to the RPTL 420-a exemption, as the proof at the trial established that petitioner "exclusively" utilized the property in furtherance of its religious and charitable purposes.

The details are in the intermediate appellate decision, which the court affirmed; here's an excerpt:

Petitioner is a not-for-profit religious corporation that owns a three-acre parcel of real property in the Town of Catskill, Greene County, which contains, among other things, a three-story, 12-bedroom main house—formerly an inn—as well as a small caretaker's cottage, several out buildings, a recently constructed outdoor temple and "processional paths." Petitioner is the corporate entity for the Cybeline Revival, a pagan following founded in 1999, but which has ancient origins. Petitioner's fundamental religious principle is that the divine feminine, the mother goddess Cybele, is present in everything, thereby creating a connection in all living things, as well as giving rise to an obligation to do charitable work and a responsibility to improve the conditions of all people, particularly women.

In 2009, petitioner, which has received tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service, filed an application for exemption from real property taxes under RPTL 420-a, which was denied by respondent Nancy McCoy, the Assessor of the Town of Catskill. Petitioner filed a grievance and the Board of Assessment Review for the Town of Catskill upheld the assessor's denial of the exemption. Accordingly, petitioner commenced the first of these proceedings to annul that determination…. After a nonjury trial …, [the trial court] dismissed petitioner's applications, reasoning that "the property primarily is used to provide affordable cooperative housing to a small number of co-religionists, with the religious and charitable uses of the property being merely incidental to that primary non-exempt use." Petitioner appeals….

"[T]o qualify for the 'exemption, (1) [petitioner] must be organized exclusively for [the] purposes enumerated in the statute, (2) the property in question must be used primarily for the furtherance of such purposes, … (3) no pecuniary profit, apart from reasonable compensation, may inure to the benefit of any officers, members, or employees, and (4) [petitioner] may not be simply used as a guise for profit-making operations.'"

At issue here is only the second element, whether the property is primarily used for religious or charitable purposes. With respect to that element, property uses that are "merely auxiliary or incidental to the main and exempt purpose and use will not defeat the exemption."

Petitioner offered testimony from four women affiliated with the property, along with numerous exhibits, whereas respondents offered no witnesses and relied on cross-examination and exhibits. In 2002, Cathryn Platine, the head of the Cybeline Revival and a founder of the faith, purchased the property along with three other women with a goal of establishing affordable housing for transsexual women, and they established a not-for-profit corporation to manage the property. Three of the owners were members of the religion and began practicing it on the property, leading the other owner to sell her interest, in 2004, to another individual who was a Cybeline adherent.

At that time, the owners dedicated the property as the home of the religion, transferred title to petitioner and held a formal ceremony dedicating the property to the Mother Goddess. The religion had seven priestesses, most of whom had bedrooms in the main building of the property, as the testimony stressed that convent-style living is a component of the Cybeline Revival. Each priestess's personal room had an altar, along with a main altar on the main floor of the building. Platine and one other priestess lived there full time, along with a novitiate (basically a priestess-in-training), a woman who was seeking asylum in this country and another guest temporarily residing there on a charitable basis. Further, the testimony established that from 2009 to 2011 between 8 to 10 other charitable guests and about four "spiritual seekers" resided temporarily on the property, with no guests being required to pay for their stay and with little actual financial support provided by guests.

With respect to petitioner's activities on the property, Platine testified that evening praise is conducted nightly at the altar in the main house's "sitting room," new moon and full moon celebrations are conducted "approximately every two weeks" outdoors on the processional paths and in the outdoor temple area, and "entire weekend[s] of activities" are held to celebrate the equinoxes and solstices. The property is also used for certain rituals pertaining to marriage and death, and celebrations pertaining to physical changes in a woman's lifetime.

Platine also testified that she provides religious instruction and spiritual counseling on the property, although Supreme Court found her estimate of 30 hours per week devoted to counseling to be incredible. Other public activities on the property include participation in an annual pagan pride festival, "The All Woman Festival," "a weekend event where women, primarily pagans,… come … together [to] shar[e] sisterhood," as well as a weekly open cafe, a monthly pagan brunch and a monthly, more secular, bisexual brunch. These activities take place throughout the main building and in the outdoor temple, two other outdoor areas and along the processional paths, plus some counseling and instruction take place in the caretaker's cottage.

Considering the testimony, petitioner met its burden to demonstrate that it uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes. In accord with Supreme Court's determination, respondents contend that the property was used primarily to provide cooperative housing because, in essence, the few adherents of the Cybeline Revival have in effect just continued the property's former residential use, as evidenced by the financial support coming from these few adherents and by the "friends of friends" guests.

However, these arguments contend that there is some threshold amount of activity and public benefit that must be demonstrated, which confuses the standard that is simply whether the property was used primarily for religious and charitable purposes. The testimony established that the Cybeline Revival stresses communal living among its adherents, as well as providing hospitality and charity to those in need, and the members consider this property the home of their faith. They also conduct religious and charitable activities throughout the property on a regular basis. Accordingly, petitioner has satisfied the legal requirements in order to receive a real property tax exemption ….

I assume that "bisexual brunch" actually means "brunch that both men and women may attend."

My project: Have my colleague Richard Re be the subject of In re Re, without his having to be convicted or seized or anything like that.