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Volume 11 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 90

Opinions of Counsel

Clergy exemption (Universal Life Church) - Real Property Tax Law, § 460:

If an assessor receives an application for a clergy exemption from a purported minister of the Universal Life Church (or other purported religion), the assessor should inquire as to the sincerity of the applicant’s religious affiliation and deny the application if the assessor determines it is a sham.

We have received an inquiry concerning the partial exemption for real property owned by members of the clergy (Real Property Tax Law, § 460). An assessor received an application for such exemption (i.e., RP-460) from a purported minister of the Universal Life Church [ULC], but questions the applicant’s exemption eligibility.

More than 20 years ago, this agency {1}  was extensively involved in litigation concerning membership in the ULC and claims of wholly exempt status (RPTL, §§ 420-a, 436 and 462) based upon such status. {2}  At that time at least, one could become “ordained” in the ULC upon mailed payment of $1.00 to an office located in California. The litigation consisted of some six proceedings consolidated into three that reached the Court of Appeals (Town of Hardenburgh v. State of New York, 52 N.Y.2d 536, 421 N.E.2d 795, 439 N.Y.S.2d 303 (1981); Dudley v. Kerwick, 52 N.Y.2d 542, 421 N.E.2d 797, 439 N.Y.S.2d 305 (1981); State Board of Equalization and Assessment v. Kerwick, 52 N.Y.2d 557, 421 N.E.2d 803, 439 N.Y.S.2d 311 (1981)). In time, these proceedings were all resolved, but, for purposes of this opinion, we merely note that none of these decisions was decided on the merits of ULC membership as a ministry which qualified property owned by member-ministers as entitled to an exemption from real property taxation under New York law.

This failure to address the status of the ULC as a “religion” is indicative of the judiciary’s reluctance to address the ramifications of the ULC as it relates to the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. This reluctance is also evidenced by a subsequent decision by the Court of Appeals which wrote in regard to the disciples of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon:

In determining whether a particular ecclesiastical body has been organized and is conducted exclusively for religious purposes, the courts may not inquire into or classify the content of the doctrine, dogmas, and teachings held by that body to be integral to its religion but must accept that body’s characterization of its own beliefs and activities and those of its adherents, so long as that characterization is made in good faith and is not sham (Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, 55 N.Y.2d 512, 518, 435 N.E.2d 662, 450 N.Y.S.2d 292, 293 (1982)).

The Court in the latter case did not discuss what would constitute either a good faith or a sham religion. It appears from this decision that a court and, indeed, an assessor, would be bound by an organization’s characterization of its primary purpose as religious, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Whether the inexpensive purchase of ministerial credentials by mail or obtaining them for little or even no cost from the Internet would be sufficient evidence of a sham so as to justify the denial of tax exempt status must await judicial resolution.

The courts have addressed the ULC in another context, however: domestic relations. In Ranieri v. Ranieri, 146 A.D.2d 34, 539 N.Y.S.2d 382 (2d Dept., 1989), app. dsmd., 74 N.Y.2d 792, 543 N.E.2d 794, 545 N.Y.S.2d 106 (1989), the court declared a marriage performed by a ULC “minister” to be void. Specifically, the court held that section 11 of the Domestic Relations Law, which permits a marriage to be solemnized by a clergyman or minister of any religion, was not satisfied by a ULC minister (accord: Ravenal v. Ravenal, 72 Misc.2d 100, 338 N.Y.S.2d 324 (Sup.Ct., N.Y. Co., 1972)). We also note the decision in Mason v. General Brown Cent. School Dist., 851 F.2d 47 (2d Cir., 1988), which, consistent with the scope of inquiry prescribed in Holy Spirit (supra), questions the “good faith” and “sham” characteristics of the ULC.

Assessors who receive applications for exemption based on religious grounds should follow the guidelines set in Holy Spirit (supra): weighing the “good faith” or “sham” characteristics of the application. Should the assessor determine that ordination in the ULC (or, for that matter, another religious sect) is insufficient to justify the granting of a clergy exemption, he or she should deny the application. The applicant may then seek administrative and judicial review of such denial.

December 15, 2004

{1}  Then known as the State Board of Equalization and Assessment.

{2}  We are aware of no litigation concerning the ULC and section 460 of the RPTL.