SJC Decision Sets Precedent for State’s Religious Institutions

April 18, 2017

Boston, MA (April 18, 2017) – Hemenway & Barnes, one of Boston’s leading legal and fiduciary firms, recently secured a significant appellate victory on behalf of the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) ruled on appeal that La Salette is exempt from local property taxes on the basis that the property is and was used for religious worship and instruction and purposes related to or supporting its dominant religious use. The decision effectively eliminates La Salette’s property tax exposure going forward.

The case, Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette Inc. v. Board of Assessors of Attleboro, stemmed from the Board of Assessors’ determination, upheld by the state’s Appellate Tax Board, that due to various fundraising and other activities at the Shrine that were not strictly speaking religious worship, portions of La Salette’s property did not qualify for religious exemption, resulting in taxes in excess of $300,000 since 2012.

The SJC held that the Shrine’s facilities, including its “welcome center,” maintenance facility and cafeteria are exempt from taxation because while they are not used exclusively for worship, they support religious worship and the pilgrims who participate in that worship. The Court also determined that a wildlife sanctuary managed by the Massachusetts Audubon Society and a former convent leased to a nonprofit as a safe house, because the dominant purpose was not religious worship, did not qualify for the religious exemption but may qualify for exemption as property devoted to charitable use.

The SJC ruling limits La Salette’s property tax exposure and confirms that the exemption for houses of religious worship applies when “the dominant purpose of the questioned portion of property is religious worship or instruction, or purposes connected to it,” according to the decision.

The case was argued by Hemenway & Barnes partners Diane C. Tillotson and Ryan P. McManus.

“Religious institutions have historically been shielded from certain property taxes, but as municipalities explore additional revenue sources there is a risk of blurring the lines around what types of activities are exempt,” said Ms. Tillotson. “This decision clearly defines what uses qualify for the religious exemption. We are thrilled to have helped secure significant tax relief for La Salette and are encouraged that other religious institutions across the Commonwealth have clear guidance concerning their property tax exposure.”

About Hemenway & Barnes

Based in Boston, Hemenway & Barnes LLP has served for more than 150 years as trusted counsel to the region’s high net worth families, businesses, and nonprofit organizations. The firm is a unique combination of legal and financial expertise, with a focus on providing each client with services that are specifically tailored and results-oriented. Areas of expertise include estate planning, estate and trust administration, litigation, business and nonprofit law, and real estate. Its affiliate, Hemenway Trust Company LLC, is a New Hampshire-based, private trust company offering a full range of wealth advisory and management services.

Related Services

State & Local Taxation Disputes
Corporations, nonprofits and individuals with complex state and local tax matters often turn to our attorneys for help resolving their disputes.
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By their nature, religious organizations bring an additional, unique set of complexities into the courtroom.
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Many of the nation's prominent nonprofit organizations have sought our help to resolve difficult disputes or litigation of various kinds.

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