SHRINE OF OUR LADY OF LA SALETTE INC.
BOARD OF ASSESSORS OF ATTLEBORO.
Heard: December 5, 2016.
from a decision of the Appellate Tax Board.
Supreme Judicial Court granted an application for direct
appellate review. Diane C. Tillotson (Ryan P. McManus also
present) for the taxpayer.
Michael R. Siddall (James M. Hannifan also present) for board
of assessors of Attleboro.
A. Nadel, for Massachusetts Council of Churches & others,
amici curiae, submitted a brief.
Felicia H. Ellsworth, Eric L. Hawkins, & William R.
0'Reilly, Jr., for Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston
& others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.
Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Hines, Gaziano, Lowy, & Budd,
an appeal from a decision of the Appellate Tax Board (board)
concerning property in Attleboro owned by the taxpayer,
Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette Inc. (Shrine). The Shrine
sought a tax abatement from the board, claiming that certain
portions of its property were exempt from taxation under G.
L. c. 59, § 5, Eleventh (Clause Eleventh), the exemption
for "houses of religious worship." The crux of the
appeal is the scope of this exemption. For the reasons set
forth below, we conclude that property is exempt from
taxation under Clause Eleventh where the dominant purpose of
the questioned portion of property is religious worship or
instruction, or purposes connected with it. Applying this
principle, we conclude that the board erred when it found
that the Shrine's "welcome center" and
maintenance building were not exempt under Clause Eleventh.
We affirm its denial of an abatement for the former convent
that the Shrine leased to a nonprofit organization for use as
a safe house for battered women, and for the wildlife
sanctuary that was exclusively managed by the Massachusetts
Audubon Society in accordance with a conservation easement.
The safe house and wildlife sanctuary might have been exempt
from real estate taxation under G. L. c. 59, § 5, Third
(Clause Third), as the property of a benevolent or charitable
organization devoted to charitable use, had the Shrine
satisfied the filing requirements for such an exemption, but
they were not exempt under Clause Eleventh.
Shrine is a Catholic religious organization affiliated with
the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette (missionaries).
The missionaries are members of the Catholic faith who are
inspired by what they believe to have been an apparition of
the Virgin Mary (Our Lady) to two children in the village of
La Salette, France, in 1846. Following that event, supporters
erected a shrine in La Salette to provide the many pilgrims
who began traveling there each year a space to express their
devotion. Since then, members of the Catholic faith from
around the world have erected shrines honoring Our Lady in
their respective countries. Although there are a number of
these shrines throughout the world, each country is permitted
only one designated national shrine. The Shrine in Attleboro,
which opened in 1953, became the national shrine for the
United States in 2009. Accordingly, thousands of people visit
the Shrine each year, ranging from the lone visitor who stays
for only a moment to thousands of international pilgrims who
stay for most of the day.
Shrine is a Massachusetts not-for-profit organization whose
purposes are described in its articles of organization as
"To promote the devotion to Our Lady of La Salette
through the organization of public pilgrimages and through
the administration of the Sacraments of the Church; to
provide spiritual guidance to the pilgrims visiting the
Shrine; to provide food and housing, if necessary, for the
proper care of the pilgrims; to offer to said pilgrims the
opportunity of purchasing religious articles and books of all
kinds; to seek contributions for the development and support
of said Shrine; to use any or all of said funds for the
religious education of young men training for religious and
missionary priesthood; to provide funds to further foreign
missions; and to do such further acts as are necessary and
incidental to the carrying out of the purposes herein before
keeping with the Shrine's purposes, visitors and pilgrims
can participate in a range of activities on the Shrine's
property. Each day, the Shrine holds a Mass. and provides the
opportunity for confession. In addition, it offers
specialized prayer services and prayer groups at various
times. Each year, nearly 400, 000 visitors make their way to
the Shrine between Thanksgiving and early January for its
Festival of Lights, during which the Shrine erects Christmas
displays and hangs approximately 400, 000 Christmas lights.
In addition to these events, the Shrine hosts a variety of
other functions and activities, including retreats, concerts,
2012, the fiscal year at issue, the Shrine carried out its
operations on 199 acres of property it owned in the city of
Attleboro (city). This case arises out of the city
assessor's determination that the Shrine owed property
taxes in the amount of $92, 292.98, based on a valuation of
$12, 815, 800, the taxable portion of which was valued at $4,
955, 740. The Shrine paid its property tax, with interest,
and in January, 2013, filed an application for abatement,
which the city's board of assessors (assessors) denied in
April, 2013. The Shrine appealed to the board, arguing that
all of its property was exempt under Clause
board, for purposes of its analysis, divided the Shrine's
property into eight distinct portions: (1) the Shrine's
church, (2) the indoor and outdoor chapels, (3) the
monastery, (4) the retreat center, (5) the welcome center and
surrounding land, (6) the maintenance building, (7) the
former convent, which was leased to a nonprofit organization
that uses the building as a safe house for battered women
(safe house), and (8) approximately 110 acres of
"unimproved land" known as the Attleboro Springs
Wildlife Sanctuary (wildlife sanctuary). The board determined
that the first four portions of the property (the church, the
chapels, the monastery, and the retreat center, including the
surrounding land and parking areas) were exempt under Clause
Eleventh. It determined that the welcome center was only
partially exempt and that the maintenance building, safe
house, and wildlife sanctuary were fully taxable. The Shrine
appeals these latter four determinations, so we describe at
length the board's findings regarding these portions of
typical pilgrimage to the Shrine begins in the welcome
center, where pilgrims and visitors are shown a video
presentation about Our Lady of La Salette. After a visit to
the Shrine church to pray or to the chapel for confession,
visitors return to the cafeteria in the welcome center for
lunch. The cafeteria also "functions as a
soup kitchen serving free meals to the poor every Monday, and
it is used on occasion as overflow space in which to host a
lecture or workshop offered by the [S]hrine." Visitors
can also visit the "bistro" in the welcome center,
where a more limited menu of food is available for purchase
from noon to 5 P.M. each day. The Shrine's gift shop is
located in the welcome center, where visitors ...