By Hannah Smith
A recent ruling by the SCOV proves again the old adage that nothing is certain but death and taxes. According to the Court, not even godliness guarantees you a property-tax break under the stern, secular eye of the law.
Quite simply, this case concerns a dispute over the tax-exempt status of a Christian summer camp, and whether the camp property qualifies for the “pious-use” real estate tax exemption. The Court held that it does not because church camps are not among the specifically identified types and uses of property eligible for the exemption under the statute.
Petitioner Brownington Center Church of Brownington, Vermont, now known as New Hope Bible Church and Ministries, Inc. (the Church), owns and operates a summer camp called River of Life Camp in Irasburg, Vermont. The Church acquired the camp from a nonprofit organization called River of Life, Inc. in 2009. The Camp, which has operated as a Christian summer camp since 2000, was established as an outreach for youth ministry. Its purpose, as stated by the vice president of River of Life Inc., “is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ . . . through various ministries consistent with the Holy Scriptures.” The camp operates eight weeks out of the year and hosts between fifty and seventy campers per session. Buildings on the property include four cabins for housing campers, an equipment building, and a kitchen. A typical day at River of Life camp consists of a one-hour Bible session, scheduled devotional time, and an evening prayer, in addition to the standard bevy of classic summer camp activities (swimming, archery, boating, contracting head lice from other campers, etc.).
Between 2004 and 2007 the River of Life property was listed as exempt from property taxes. In 2008, the Town of Irasburg reviewed the status of tax-exempt properties, and the town listers determined that the camp property was not tax exempt because none of the buildings on the property appeared to be the type of structures qualifying for exemption under Vermont tax law.
The Church sent the town listers a grievance letter opposing the decision, which the listers denied. The Church appealed to the Irasburg Board of Civil Authority, which confirmed the listers’ decision. The Church then appealed the Board’s decision to the Orleans Superior Court, where they advanced the argument that the property is tax exempt because the buildings on the property qualify as either a church edifice, or as buildings used as convents, schools, or homes under subsection 4 of this statute and subsection 2 of this statute. The trial court disagreed with the Church’s characterization of the camp buildings as church edifices, and affirmed the Town’s determination that the property was not tax exempt.
The SCOV’s decision in this case was based on the Court’s interpretation of the latter statute. The other statute states generally that real estate used for public, pious, or charitable uses shall be exempt from taxation. But the more-specific statute goes on to limit the “pious-use” exemption to certain very specific types of buildings owned or kept by a religious society. Those buildings are limited to a church edifice, parsonage, the outbuildings of a church edifice or parsonage, a building used as a convent, school, orphanage, home, or hospital, and certain land adjacent to any of the listed buildings.
The Court did not address the Church’s general tax-exempt status, but instead resolved the dispute within the narrow confines of the specific statute. The question facing the Court was whether the camp property is excluded from the general “pious-use” exemption by the limiting language of the statute. The Church argued that every building on the property is dedicated to the worship and service of Christ, and to propagating the Church’s religious message, and thus every building is technically a “church edifice,” covered by the pious-use exception.
The Court, considering the legislative history behind the enactment of the statute, first determined that it was enacted with the purpose of limiting the types of properties qualifying for exemptions. The Court then noted that the Legislature took the time and energy to list with specificity the types of properties qualifying for the pious-use exemption, and, sadly for Petitioner, “church camp” was not on the list. Considering the unambiguous language of subsection 2, in conjunction with the statutory purpose of limiting application of the “pious-use” exemption, the Court found no reason to interpret the statute to include church camps.
While acknowledging that the legislature has not defined “church edifice,” the SCOV refused to accept that occasional use of a building for a religious ceremony transformed the building into a church edifice. The Court looked at the “undisputed primary use of the property” and concluded that, for the purposes of property taxation, the property was simply a summer camp owned by a church.
The holding is notably limited to defining what falls under the smallish umbrella of subsection 2 for the purposes of property taxation. The Court made no attempt to define “church edifice,” or what constitutes a house of worship. The Court simply concluded that the buildings on Petitioner’s property are primarily used as summer camp facilities, and a summer camp is not entitled to an exemption because it is not on the short but explicit list of tax-exempt properties under subsection 2.
Petitioners also unsuccessfully argued that the trial court erroneously overlooked the SCOV’s ruling in Our Lady of Ephesus. In that case, the Court recognized the right of states to provide property-tax exemptions for religious institutions, and determined that a court’s determination of whether a religious institution qualified for a tax exemption did not necessarily constitute unconstitutional entanglement. This argument did little to advance Petitioner’s case; the question at hand was not whether the Church is a religious institution, it was whether a summer camp falls within the narrow confines of subsection 2. And the SCOV found that it does not.
Here the Court avoided the sticky and sensitive topics of defining and distinguishing religious institutions, and stuck to a bare-bones examination of statutory interpretation. The SCOV had one goal—to “give effect to the Legislature’s intent,” and the Court felt that the intent here was clear, without ambiguity. The statute was enacted to limit the number of properties receiving exemptions, and the plain language of the statute stated with specificity those properties that qualified for a tax exemption. The Court found no reason to take creative license and read “summer camp” between the lines of subsection 2. The Court provided a narrow substantive ruling, but a definitive statement of the Court’s commitment to enforcing the plain language of the law, regardless of parties’ godliness.