On appeal from Superior Court of New Jersey, Tax Court, Gloucester County.
Petrella, Baime and Ashbey. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Baime, J.A.D.
Bethany Baptist Church of Blackwood Terrace appeals from a judgment of the Tax Court upholding a determination of the Gloucester County Board of Taxation levying taxes on church property for the year 1984. The Tax Court's holding was predicated upon the fact that the property had been purchased by plaintiff after the October 1, 1983 assessment date, and prior to that time had been used for a nonexempt purpose. The trial court thus determined that the property was not immune from local taxes. Broadly stated, plaintiff contends on appeal that imposition of taxes on property used for religious activities to be paid from funds obtained through tithes and contributions runs afoul of the First Amendment's free exercise clause. We disagree and affirm.
We need not recount the facts at length. Reverend Frank T. Olsen, the pastor of the church, testified that he initially leased the subject property, which was then being used for a nonexempt purpose, in July 1982. In September of the same year, he founded the church on the property. Upon its formation, a constitution was adopted under which supervision of the church's activities is said to be "in the Lord Jesus Christ." The church has no board of elders or deacons. Instead, the pastor is the sole governing authority vested with the power to make decisions on behalf of the church.
On December 12, 1983, Pastor Olsen, on behalf of the church, entered into an agreement to purchase the property from its owners. The written agreement identified Bethany Baptist Church as the purchaser. Several days later, a certificate of incorporation of the Bethany Baptist Church of Blackwood
Terrace was filed for the purpose of creating a jural entity to hold title to the property. The transaction was consummated on December 30, 1983, when a deed was filed listing the corporation as the title holder.
Although the exact chronology of events is in dispute, Pastor Olsen testified that immediately after the closing, he proceeded to the Office of the Deptford Township Tax Assessor and requested a tax exemption. He was told that because the property was not owned by the church on October 1, 1983, the tax assessment date, it would be necessary to pay taxes for the year 1984. This position was later adopted by the Gloucester County Board of Taxation.
In the proceedings before the Tax Court, Pastor Olsen explained that a foundational tenet of the church required monies obtained from tithes and contributions to be used only for religious purposes. We need not recite the biblical passages which apparently form the basis for the reverend's interpretation. Suffice it to say, the church harbors the view that funds solicited from the congregation belong to the deity and cannot be used to pay taxes.
Although the Tax Court did not challenge the sincerity of this belief, it nevertheless concluded that, by statute, the pivotal date for determining the grant of an exemption was October 1, 1983 of the preceding calendar year and that property purchased thereafter and used for a tax exempt purpose was subject to the burden of taxation. While the trial court did not directly pass upon plaintiff's constitutional challenge, it apparently concluded that the statutory mandate did not violate the First Amendment's free exercise clause. We consider these points in seriatim.
Initially, we are in complete accord with the trial court's conclusion that property used for a nonexempt purpose on October 1, the assessment ...