Tax Court Puts Brakes on Recent Trend Limiting Religious/Non-Profit Exemptions

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In a recent tax court case, Holy Trinity Baptist Church v. City of Trenton (Docket No. 015909-2014, February 2, 2017), the court overturned the findings of the County Board of Taxation and upheld the tax exemption for religious/charitable use of properties pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-6.3.  This statute exempts properties from taxation where “buildings [are] actually used in the work of associations and corporations organized exclusively for religious purposes, including religious worship, or charitable purposes.”  The Holy Trinity decision comes at a time when municipalities are aggressively attempting to challenge exemptions and return previously exempt properties to their ratable tax rolls.

Commencing with the tax court’s decision in the AHS Hospital Corp. v. Town of Morristown, 28 N.J. Tax 456 (Tax 2015), involving the Morristown Memorial Hospital, it appears that the level of scrutiny being applied to previously well-established categories of exempt users has been elevated thereby placing the exempt status of many non-profit organizations in limbo.  In Morristown Memorial, the tax court found that the hospital’s entanglement with and in for-profit activities undermined the hospital’s ability to satisfy the well-recognized three prong exemption test.  This test requires an organization to establish that:  1) The organization is a New Jersey non-profit entity; 2) The non-profit entity is acting consistent with its charter in the performance of religious/charitable functions; and 3) The activities performed on the property are not conducted for profit.  Paper Mill Playhouse v. Millburn Township, 95 N.J. 503 (1984).  In reaching its conclusion the Morristown Memorial court focused on the hospital’s failure to satisfy the third prong of the test.  In part, the court concluded that the activities conducted and services provided by the many private, for-profit physicians, utilizing the facilities on a daily basis, dictated a finding that these hospital facilities were in fact being used for profit.  The court there also concluded that it was unable to distinguish and segregate those portions of the hospital facilities where the involvement of for-profit activities did not apply.  Consequently, other than in the most distinct and limited areas (e.g., the hospital parking garage, auditorium and in-house fitness center), the Morristown Memorial hospital facilities were deemed to be taxable.

More recently, the tax court was asked to focus on the exemption afforded non-profit universities.  In Fields v. Trustees of Princeton University, a group of third-party taxpayers challenged the exemption afforded Princeton University.  Although that matter was resolved without a trial, it appears the settlement may have been precipitated by the University’s concerns with what has been widely perceived to be an increasingly unfriendly environment for the exempt treatment of non-profits in the aftermath of the Morristown Memorial decision.  No doubt, the fact that the very same tax court judge who penned Morristown Memorial was also assigned to the Princeton University case may have further influenced the University’s decision to settle the matter.  The settlement, which only temporarily resolves the ultimate exemption question, requires the University to pay over $18 million dollars in payments to third-parties and contributions to the municipality (in the form of payments in lieu of taxes) through the year 2022 when the University’s settlement obligations expire.

With this recent history and the presence of numerous pending cases specifically attacking the exemptions afforded non-profit hospitals throughout the state, the tax court’s decision in Holy Trinity may offer non-profits, at least religious organizations, some solace from what appears to be a concerted effort on the part of municipalities to challenge the efficacy of real property tax exemptions in all areas.  Importantly, the Holy Trinity court concluded that despite evidence indicating that religious activities on the subject church property had diminished (as the church purchased a new property for its operations and had already commenced the process of shifting its activities to this new location), the church continued to make actual use of the property in furtherance of its religious purposes.  In particular,  the Holy Trinity court found that the church continued its schedule of weekly meetings, made the space in question available for future meetings and gatherings, conducted receptions, and stored books at the location in connection with its religious/charitable functions.  As a result, the continued application of the tax exemption was determined to be appropriate in Holy Trinity.

The Holy Trinity court made clear that the intention to sell the property and diminished use thereof would not in of itself destroy the tax exemption. This most recent decision is in accord with City of Hackensack v. Bergen County, where the listing of the property for sale and removal of certain items to increase the marketability of the property were found to be insufficient to undermine the exemption.  Id. 405 N.J. Super. 35 (App. Div. 2009).  In addition, the Holy Trinity court also recognized that, even where a property’s use is limited to the occasional use for storage of goods used in furtherance of religious and charitable purposes, the property would still qualify for tax exempt status.  Borough of Hamburg v. Trustee of Presbyty of Newton, 28 N.J. Tax 311, 319-320 (Tax 2015).

Consequently, in the current ratable hungry environment, non-profit organizations must now be more vigilant in ensuring that their properties continue to be used for the organization’s exempt or charitable purposes.  Only by regularly reviewing the entity’s activities and documenting continued property usage for its non-profit purposes, can these organizations improve the prospect of preserving the significant benefits that flow from the continued application of the statutory exemption.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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