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Goodwill Home and Missions, Inc. v. Garwood Borough

June 14, 1995

GOODWILL HOME AND MISSIONS, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,
v.
GARWOOD BOROUGH, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT.



On appeal from the Tax Court.

Approved for Publication June 14, 1995.

Before Judges Brody, A.m. Stein and P.g. Levy. The opinion of the court was delivered by A.m. Stein, J.A.D.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stein

STEIN, J.A.D.

The Borough of Garwood denied Goodwill Home and Missions, Inc. a real property exemption as a parsonage for the tax years 1991 and 1992. The property, a residence, was and is occupied by Reverend Lee Schmookler, its Executive Director/Pastor, and his family. The Union County Board of Taxation affirmed. The Tax Court affirmed the Board of Taxation. We reverse.

N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6 provides exemption from real property taxation for "buildings, not exceeding two, actually occupied as a parsonage by the officiating clergyman of any religious corporation of this State . . . which is devoted to the purposes above mentioned and to no other purpose . . . ." *fn1

The Tax Court Judge ruled that Schmookler was not "an officiating clergyman." She said: "The Reverend is not an officiating clergyman and therefore it follows that the Garwood property was not occupied, during the tax years in question, as a 'parsonage' and it is unnecessary to determine whether Taxpayer is a 'religious corporation', as such term is used in the statute."

Although she specifically said that she was not deciding the question, we read her opinion to conclude that Goodwill was not a religious corporation.

While the members of Taxpayer (i.e. its Board of Directors) must be members of "an evangelical church" none of them attend any religious services at Taxpayer's Newark Mission properties, nor are they members of the Taxpayer's congregation. . . . It is more reasonable to assume that the Taxpayer's congregation comes to and remains at the Newark Mission properties to partake of necessary human survival services provided there, than to practice their multiple religions.

The Judge also considered as significant Goodwill's "failure" to maintain a parsonage from the time of its founding in 1897 until 1981. "It appears that Taxpayer functioned from 1897 until 1981 (when the plainfield residence was acquired) with no parsonage. The record does not contain any evidence of a shift in the Taxpayer's multiple purposes such as might explain the necessity of two parsonages."

The guaranties of the Free Exercise Clause of the federal constitution and the religious freedom clauses of our State constitution restrict inquiry into what is an organized religion, who is a member of its clergy and what constitutes a "congregation" of a religious body. U.S. Const. amend. I; N.J. Const. art. I, PP 3 and 4.

In Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 102 S. Ct. 1673, 72 L. Ed.2d 33, rehearing denied, 457 U.S. 1111, 102 S. Ct. 2916, 73 L. Ed.2d 1323 (1982), the United States Supreme Court said:

The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another. . . .

This constitutional prohibition of denominational preferences is inextricably connected with the continuing vitality of the Free Exercise Clause. Madison once noted that "Security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests and in the other in the multiplicity of sects." . . . Madison's vision--freedom for all religion being guaranteed by free competition between religions--naturally assumed that every denomination would be equally at liberty to exercise and propagate its beliefs. But such equality would be impossible in an atmosphere of official denominational preference. Free exercise thus can be guaranteed only when legislators--and voters--are required to accord to their own religions the very same treatment given to small, new, or unpopular denominations. As Justice Jackson noted in another context, "there is no more effective practical guaranty against arbitrary and unreasonable ...


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