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Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette Inc. v. Board of Assessors of Attleboro

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

March 22, 2017

SHRINE OF OUR LADY OF LA SALETTE INC.
v.
BOARD OF ASSESSORS OF ATTLEBORO.

          Heard: December 5, 2016.

         Appeal from a decision of the Appellate Tax Board.

         The 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.

          Heidi 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, JJ.

          GANTS, C.J.

         This is 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.[1]

         Background.

         The 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.

         The Shrine is a Massachusetts not-for-profit organization whose purposes are described in its articles of organization as follows:

"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 set forth."

         In 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, and fundraisers.

         In 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 Eleventh.[2]

         The 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 the property.

         1. Welcome center.

         A 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.[3] 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 ...


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