By Kenneth J. Souza
ATTLEBORO, Mass. — While the annual Festival of Lights is burning brightly at the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Salette in Attleboro, the caretakers of the well-known religious landmark — the Missionaries of Our Lady of La Salette — are hoping to see light at the end of the tunnel in their appeal now sitting with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
At issue is a 2013 tax bill for $92,000 that La Salette is disputing. The Board of Assessors for the City of Attleboro would only exempt the church and parsonage structures on the La Salette property from taxes for that year, along with 60 percent of the other property on the grounds such as its cafeteria and bistro operations.
When the state Appellate Tax Board likewise upheld the assessors’ decision, the shrine ultimately took their appeal to the state’s highest court, which originally heard oral arguments on the case April 5.
“We waited for 130 days, which is the (standard) time limit that the SJC gives to themselves before they come out with a decision,” explained Father Cyriac Mattathilanickal, M.S., retreat director at La Salette Shrine. “After the 130 days they wrote us back, waiving their rule and asking for an extension before they could come up with a decision. After about a month or so, we received another letter saying they were unable to reach a majority decision on the case, and therefore they were asking for a second oral argument of the case.”
That second round of arguments was made before six of the seven members of the SJC on December 5 in Boston.
“I think part of the problem was three of the judges retired and were replaced and one of the judges — Justice Margot Botsford — recused herself because of a conflict of interest,” Father Mattathilanickal said. “The reason we were told was that the law firm we hired, Hemenway and Barnes, LLP, of Boston, previously did some legal work for Judge Botsford.”
During the follow-up 45-minute session before the SJC, the shrine’s attorney, Diane Tillotson, argued that the entire 300-acre La Salette campus should be considered a place of worship and, therefore, be wholly tax-exempt.
“The statute uses the term ‘house of religious worship,’” Tillotson said. “And, as we all know, houses have many rooms. They have furnace rooms, they have kitchens, they have rooms where people congregate and eat and sleep. I think so long as there’s nothing that’s appropriated and totally outside — taken away from the use for religious purposes — that the exemption applies to the entire house.”
But attorney Michael Siddall, representing the Attleboro assessors, noted that La Salette also rents out rooms, including bedrooms, for retreats and corporate events. It also operates a bistro and has a maintenance shed on the site. He said state law specifically allows tax exemptions for houses of worship and parsonages only.
“The second question I would consider for this court’s application is whether or not those other uses of the property either support the religious worship or instruction, or they are connected with that religious worship or instruction,” Tillotson countered. “And in this category would fall things like a maintenance shed, a cafeteria, a kitchen, a bistro — all of those types of uses.”
“How can you have a Christmas display without a place to put them away at the end of the season?” Father Mattathilanickal agreed. “How can you have a church without a parking lot? One thing is ancillary to the other — that’s the legal term they use. These things are all ancillary to the operation of the shrine.
“One of the city’s arguments is that worship only takes place inside the church (structure), but we have worship outside the church, on the grounds, where people pray the Rosary. We also have an outdoor chapel. In other words, if you could put a big canopy over the entire shrine (property), the whole thing would be considered a place of worship.”
Another bone of contention for the Attleboro assessors, according to Father Mattathilanickal, is that La Salette Shrine also rents its property out to other, “non-religious” organizations during the year.
“The city seems to think we are running a big commercial operation, which is totally inaccurate,” Father Mattathilanickal said. “We don’t agree. We are not having a lot of non-religious activities. The predominant use of the entire property is for religious activities, mostly comprised of worship and instruction.”
Tillotson also maintained these outside organizations are either connected to the shrine itself or operate fund-raisers that directly benefit the shrine’s operations.
“I would suggest that if another organization is renting on more than an occasional basis, that the inquiry should be: is that use, is that other organization intrinsically connected to the worship and the mission of the religious institution in question,” she said in her oral argument. “And I would suggest in this case, the safe house, for example, is intrinsically connected to the mission of hospitality and shelter for pilgrims and those in need of the La Salette Fathers.”
The SJC now has another 130 days from the December 5 date to render a decision, but Father Mattathilanickal is hoping they will respond even sooner — perhaps giving the shrine an early Christmas present.
“This is a case that has been long overdue in terms of rendering a decision,” Father Mattathilanickal said. “We want to move forward. We have not been able to make any future plans because we are awaiting the decision. This goes back to 2013.”
And while some of the press reports have incorrectly suggested that La Salette has been withholding tax payments pending the outcome of the appeal, Father Mattathilanickal said that is just not true.
“You cannot even file for an abatement unless you have paid the tax bill in full,” he said. “We have paid the original bill and since 2013 we’ve been paying all the (tax) bills — a little over $86,000 a year. Until we have a decision from the SJC, we continue to pay the tax bills we receive from the City of Attleboro. Without paying them, we cannot argue the case anywhere. A lot of people do not realize that all our property tax bills are paid up to date.”
Noting that Tillotson “represented us really well in presenting the case,” Father Mattathilanickal is confident they will finally receive a favorable decision on their appeal.
“It’s very hard to say 100 percent that we’ll have a full victory or a partial victory,” he said. “But we’re hopeful that with all the (amicus briefs filed) and all the support we’ve received from the Fall River Diocese and the Archdiocese of Boston, we’ll succeed.”