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The Miami Herald reports that the First Presbyterian Church of Miami, the oldest organized congregation in the city, has been hit with a $7.1 million tax bill by the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, which claims the church has leased a portion of church grounds to a for-profit school and food trucks, violating its religious exemption status.
The church… has run a K-8 religious school on the property since 2008. The bill comprises a tax lien totaling $6.5 million (including interest and fines) for the years 2009-2017, and a current bill of $509,526.24 for the 2018 year. The taxes only apply to the portions of the property deemed to be in violation of the exemption, between 29-35 percent, depending on the year.
According to Florida Statute 196.196, only the portions of a property that are used predominantly for charitable, religious, scientific, or literary purposes can be deemed exempt from taxation. But representatives of the church argue that the tax bill is an example of religious discrimination.
In two complaints filed in civil court on Nov. 30, attorneys for the First Presbyterian Church argue that the operation of the school “is motivated by the Church’s sincere religious beliefs.” The lawsuits demand a jury trial to ascertain the entire church property is exempt from taxation and for the outstanding and current tax bills to be removed.
“By partially revoking the Property’s tax exempt status and seeking to collect the tax allegedly owed for 2018, the Defendants have acted in an arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory manner and thereby denied the Church equal protection under the law in violation of the Church’s constitutional rights,” the complaint states.
Some legal experts think the discrimination claim will have a tough time sticking in court.
“What’s happening to this church is the ultimate nightmare scenario,” said Franklin Zemel, a partner at the Fort Lauderdale office of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, who represents dozens of churches, synagogues and mosques around the country. “I don’t see this as religious discrimination. I don’t see anything that suggests the county is acting in a mean or arbitrary way. To me, it sounds like you’ve got a church that is leasing out a school, they’re making money and not paying what they owe.”
Attorney Andrew Ittleman, who is representing the church, argues that the Property Appraiser has “targeted the Church for this inequitable treatment because of the high assessed value of the Property.”
The Miami Herald notes that the church property is assessed at 66 million dollars, but that wealth only exists on paper though. Fifteen years ago, the city designated the church a historic site; it may not be demolished or relocated.
It may, however, be taxed, the city’s tax assessors say.