Orange to bill church $13.7K after complaint of unfair treatment

Mission Covenant Church at 62 Cheney St. in Orange.

Mission Covenant Church at 62 Cheney St. in Orange. STAFF PHOTO/DOMENIC POLI

By SAM FERLAND

For the Athol Daily News

Published: 06-19-2024 5:00 PM

Modified: 06-25-2024 2:50 PM


ORANGE — After receiving a letter in March advising them of a complaint alleging special treatment of Mission Covenant Church, Selectboard members, in collaboration with the assessors, have decided to bill the church $13,723.54 for taxes.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, an organization dedicated to guaranteeing political distance between religious institutions and the government, sent a letter to Town Administrator Matthew Fortier and the Selectboard on March 13 to explain that a resident reported the town has for several years been renting the property at 62 Cheney St. from the church. Orange uses the church full-time for government business under a lease agreement, but tax records indicate the church still claims a property-tax exemption on the basis that the building is used for religious purposes.

In its letter, the Washington D.C.-based organization estimated the unpaid taxes for the duration of the town’s use of the building to be approximately $57,000. However, during a Selectboard meeting on Monday morning, Fortier relayed that the assessors determined the church cannot take a full tax exemption since the property is being rented.

The assessors, according to Fortier, determined the final tax exemption is 75% for the church. Additionally, the assessors’ interpretation of Massachusetts General Laws indicates the “lookback period” is only one year, meaning Orange can only collect taxes from the church for the past fiscal year. Based on these considerations, the assessors intend to notify the tax collector on June 20 to bill the church for $13,723.54.

Board members also worked on Monday to craft a response to the March 13 letter.

The original letter from Americans United for Separation of Church and State explained that providing special treatment to a religious organization, such as allowing it to take a religious exemption on a building that is not being used for religious purposes, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In response to the organization’s first claim that the church is claiming a property-tax exemption on the basis of the building being used for religious purposes, the Selectboard’s letter states, “Our response to the first claim is to cause for the Town of Orange Board of Assessors to research this and to consult with the state Department of Revenue for an answer as to whether or not the property may or may not be allowed a tax-exempt status while renting the space to the town.”

The Selectboard, in its letter, also looked to address the concern that the town could be using taxpayer funding for “unnecessary renovations for the purpose of enriching a religious institution.”

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According to Fortier, any improvements and renovations to the 62 Cheney St. building do not include projects with a timeline extending beyond the end of Orange’s lease, which was a concern for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

There were some improvements performed on the building by both Orange and the church. While the church made personal upgrades to the property, work done by the town needed to be done in accordance with state building codes, according to Orange’s response letter. Any improvements to the building paid for by Orange were reimbursed with previous and future rent credit that Orange owes for its lease.

The bill for $13,723.54 will be sent by the tax collector on July 1, and the church will have 30 days to respond following receipt. The town is attempting to find a way to extend the 30-day grace period to give the church a longer time frame to pay or an alternative payment plan, if possible.

The Selectboard also addressed Americans United for Separation of Church and State’s final concern that the town is favoring the church, reassuring the organization that this is not the case.

“What the Town of Orange can offer is to seek to and continue to ensure that Mission Covenant Church is treated the same as any other taxpayer, and adjust the tax status of the Cheney Street property appropriately, if deemed necessary by the assessors and the state DOR,” the response letter reads. “Further, we will ensure that any future renovations on the building, that are not required for the government’s use of the building, are fairly allocated between the town and the church based on the amount of time remaining on the lease as you suggest and point out in the letter.”

Response to Americans United 6-17-2024 by Shelby Ashline on Scribd