ROCKLAND, Maine — A Methodist church has filed a lawsuit claiming that the city’s refusal to exempt all of its properties is discriminatory.
The lawsuit on behalf of Aldersgate United Methodist Church was filed Monday in Knox County Superior Court. The church is being represented by attorney Stephen Whiting of Portland as well as Joel Oster from the Alliance Defense Fund of Leawood, Kan. The Alliance Defense Fund states on its website that it is a legal alliance to defend religious freedom.
The church also wants the court to rule that the city’s interpretation of state law governing property tax exemptions is unconstitutional.
At issue are three adjacent parcels located on Wesley Drive, located off Route 17 across from Chickawaukie Lake. The 5,300-square-foot church is located on one parcel of nearly 7 acres. The city exempts that property — valued by the city at $981,900 — from property taxes.
The church, through its Wesley Trust, also owns a 1.6-acre parcel with a 1,600-square-foot parsonage. The city has assessed that property at $246,700, and it was taxed $4,633 last year.
Aldersgate also owns a little more than 5 acres — consisting of the parking lot and driveway — that was valued at $118,700 and taxed $2,229.
The church claims in its lawsuit that all three parcels should be exempt from the property tax because the church is a charitable and benevolent organization. The church “provides education and religious instruction to the general public on how to live moral and healthy lives — lives that are not dependent on the government and that care for and help others in time of need.”
The church states that its properties are used by local orchestras, child development services, Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
The church argues that it should be treated the same as any other nonprofit organization.
The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the way Rockland is implementing a state law that deals with property tax exemptions be found unconstitutional to the extent that it treats churches less favorably than secular organizations. The lawsuit argues that the law’s usage by Rockland violates the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The church maintains that Rockland’s interpretation of the law treats churches differently in not exempting all properties for religious entities.
Rockland Assessor Dennis Reed, who also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, stated that parsonages are exempt from property taxation for the first $20,000 of assessment but that in Aldersgate’s case, the church rents out the property and therefore it is not exempt.
The church maintains in the lawsuit that it rents out the parsonage building to another pastor.
The church is current in its tax payments but asks the court to prohibit the city from placing tax liens or foreclosing on the property.
Reed rejected the church’s latest request for exempting all of its properties in February. He questioned why the church went directly to court and did not appeal first to the Rockland Board of Assessment Review.
Last May, the board voted 3-2 to reject the church’s tax abatement request for the previous tax year.
Reed said he had not yet seen the lawsuit. City Attorney Kevin Beal said he too had not seen the lawsuit but also questioned why the appeal did not first go to the assessment review board.