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Volume 11 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 120

Opinions of Counsel index

Clergy exemption (Morah) (Jehovah’s Witness) - Real Property Tax Law, § 460:

A morah, which is a Hebrew word for teacher, who is not also a rabbi, is not eligible to receive a clergy exemption.

While the Jehovah’s Witnesses may consider all of its members to be “ministers” for its religious purposes, such designation does not enable all members to qualify for the clergy exemption. The exemption is only available to an individual overseeing a congregation.

We have received two questions as to eligibility for the clergy exemption (Real Property Tax Law, §460).

The first situation is that of a morah, which the assessor has been advised means “teacher” in Hebrew. The applicant claims that she is the equivalent of a rabbi and therefore eligible to receive the exemption.

The second situation concerns the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We are asked if we still adhere to our opinion expressed in 10 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 13 in which we concluded that it is the congregational overseer who may qualify for the exemption. The assessor’s understanding is that all baptized members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses are deemed “ministers.” In addition, the assessor notes that, while there is but one congregational overseer per congregation, there may be several elders.

Section 460(1) of the RPTL provides:

Real property owned by a minister of the gospel, priest or rabbi of any denomination, an actual resident and inhabitant of this state, who is engaged in the work assigned by the church or denomination of which he or she is a member, or who is unable to perform such work due to impaired health or is over seventy years of age, and real property owned by his or her unremarried surviving spouse while an actual resident and inhabitant of this state, shall be exempt from taxation to the extent of fifteen hundred dollars.

Section 460 has not generated many reported judicial decisions, most likely because it provides a very limited reduction in assessed value (4 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 112). Of course, the exemption has a very significant effect in municipalities, such as Nassau County, which assess property at a small percentage of market value. For example, given Nassau County’s 2007 class one ratio of 0.25 percent, the $1,500 assessment reduction equates to a $600,000 full value benefit.

In the one reported decision concerning section 460 of which we are aware, Ingham v. Town of Dickinson, 192 A.D.2d 813, 597 N.Y.S.2d 173 (3d Dept., 1993), lv. to app. den., 82 N.Y.2d 653, 619 N.E.2d 661, 601 N.Y.S.2d 583 (1993), the court upheld the assessor’s denial of the exemption to an individual who was employed full time as a psychiatric counselor and nursing assistant at a mental health center. It said:

We find the petition insufficient to establish entitlement to the tax exemption. The record is devoid of any credible evidence that petitioner is a minister of a denomination with any congregational form of government from whence authority might flow to empower him to work for said church. A court will not take judicial notice of the status and authority of a particular kind of ecclesiastical officer [citation omitted]. There must be allegation and proof of such a matter [citation omitted]. There is a failure of any proof not only of the nature or status of the church body that petitioner represents, but also a failure to demonstrate his authority under the rules of the church to act for it (192 A.D.2d at 814, 597 N.Y.S.2d at 174).

Some years before the Ingham case was decided, we also expressed the opinion that the clergy exemption is available to “a person, whose principal occupation is, and whose time is devoted to, the performance of the duties of a clergyman” (5 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 124).

Turning to the facts presented, it does indeed appear that morah is a Hebrew word meaning a female teacher. Likewise, “rabbi” is frequently defined as meaning teacher (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged), p.1869). Nevertheless, section 460 makes the exemption available to ministers, priests, and rabbis only. We have previously opined that a Jewish cantor may not receive the exemption, concluding that the section “is clearly intended to benefit the clerical leader of a congregation and in the Jewish faith the clerical leader is the rabbi” (4 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 70). {1}  While all rabbis may be teachers, it would be a false syllogism to conclude that all morahs are rabbis. In our opinion, then, property owned by a morah, who is not a rabbi, does not qualify for exemption under section 460.

The situation as to the Jehovah’s Witnesses is somewhat more complex. It is, of course, well established that the denomination is a religious organization. For example, in Watchtower Bible & Tract Society v. Lewisohn, 35 N.Y.2d 92, 315 N.E.2d 801, 358 N.Y.S.2d 757 (1974), The Court of Appeals upheld its exemption under what is now section 420-a of the RPTL. The Court said:

This religious organization embraces more than one and half million ministers and missionary evangelists in more than 200 lands throughout the world. Congregations of Jehovah's Witnesses are established locally under the society's supervision with an assignment of missionary territory in which the members of the congregation carry on their religious preaching and teaching activities. Each religious congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses has a supervising minister and assistants appointed by the society.

***

The great weight of judicial authority has uniformly held that the preaching activity of Jehovah's Witnesses from house to house is done as ministers of the gospel and it is held that it is religious preaching [citations omitted](35 N.Y.2d at 98, 315 N.E.2d at 804, 358 N.Y.S.2d at 760).

The clergy exemption vis-à-vis Jehovah’s Witnesses was not in issue in Watchtower, nor, as indicated above, in any judicial decision of which we are aware. In reaching our conclusion in 10 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 13, we stated:

[A] Congregational Overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while he or she may not have received a degree in divinity from an accredited school of ministry, is nevertheless considered to be a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who has been ordained in accordance with the rules and principles prescribed by the denomination. As such a minister, the Congregational Overseer is appointed by the governing body of the denomination to preside over and direct the spiritual functions and practices of the local congregation, and is authorized to perform the ordinary rites and ceremonies recognized and employed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We distinguish the Overseer from other ordained members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as the other ordained members are not ministers, priests or their equivalent, and do not lead the congregation, as the statute requires [citations omitted].

In response to the current inquiry, we conducted an internet search, and found the following on a website purporting to be the authorized site of the denomination’s office of public information:

Jehovah’s Witnesses have no clergy-laity division. All baptized members are ordained ministers, and all who attend services, including children, have an opportunity to participate. Most services are led by elders, who are spiritually mature members of the faith, or by qualified assistants, who are known as ministerial servants.

In the absence of an opinion from a court of competent jurisdiction, we are not yet prepared to change the opinion we expressed in 10 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 13. Significantly, in Word of Life Ministries v. Nassau County, 3 N.Y.3d 455, 821 N.E.2d 130, 787 N.Y.S.2d 705 (2004), the Court of Appeals upheld the grant of seven exemptions under section 462 to the church-owned residences of the various pastors of a single church. That decision prompted us to issue 11 Op.Counsel SBRPS No. 64 in which we concluded that “Where a church employs multiple clergy, and each clergy satisfies the criteria of section 460 of the Real Property Tax Law, the privately-owned homes of all such clergy may qualify for the clergy exemption. ” While all members of a denomination might be considered to be “ministers” for the religious purposes of that denomination, we do not think that such designation enables all members to qualify for exemption under section 460 of the RPTL. We believe that the exemption is only available to an individual overseeing a congregation.

December 21, 2007


{1}  Similarly, in 6 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 78, we concluded that the exemption is not available to the deacon of a Roman Catholic Church, a deacon not being a priest.

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