Action Alert!

In Massachusetts, a difficult, dangerous religious-freedom test case

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 06, 2016

The political climate is not favorable to the Catholic Church these days, particularly in Massachusetts. So I cannot be confident that the Supreme Judicial Court will reach the right decision in the case mentioned in yesterday’s CWN headline story: the suit by a Catholic shrine to recover its full tax-exempt status. Then again, to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the right decision would be.

The La Salette Shrine is an enormous complex: large enough to include a wildlife sanctuary on the grounds. There are regular religious services scheduled at the shrine, but there is also regular entertainment. The tax assessor of Attleboro, Massachusetts, decided that some of the shrine’s property should be taxed, insofar as it is not used for any distinctly religious purpose.

The question before the Supreme Judicial Court is not—or should not be—whether the assessor’s decision is right or wrong. The crucial question is whether the assessor should be making that determination. The diocesan bishop, not the tax assessor, should be responsible for determining whether or not a Catholic shrine’s organizers are conducting proper religious activities.

On the other hand, since it is the government that allows tax exemptions, it is the government that must set standards by which institutions can qualify for exemption. It is easy to imagine how a phony “religious” organization could exploit an exemption to maximize its revenues. It is also easy to imagine that a legitimate religious institution could be tempted to “push the envelope,” letting commercial activities take precedence over its religious mission. Someone in secular government will necessarily have the authority to pronounce on whether or not the line has been crossed. Thus the case now before the Massachusetts court.

As long as secular courts showed a healthy reluctance to involve themselves in religious disputes, public officials would not question a religious exemption except in the most egregious cases. But this is the era of the Imperial Judiciary. (Bear in mind that the court hearing this case is the same body that issued a ukase in 2004 legalizing same-sex in Massachusetts.) And as the Attleboro assessor knows full well, the Catholic Church is especially unpopular in this liberal enclave. The stage is set, unfortunately, for a ruling adverse not only to the La Salette Shrine, but to the overall cause of religious freedom.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 09, 2016 12:43 PM ET USA

    Why aren't the bishops urging their flock to speak out on this matter? Why should the state/city tax a shrine whether or not the whole complex is used for worship. Take the parking lot, for instance, the people attending the services need somewhere to park their cars.