Trinity Springs Baptist Church Wins Tax Case
Greg J. Dixon
Trinity Springs Baptist Church in Martin County, Indiana, a 157 year old church just won a great victory, not only for Trinity Springs, but for all of the unregistered churches of Indiana and the Biblical Law Center of Indianapolis that prepared the case. It no doubt will eventually help in the religious freedom arena across the land. The ruling was given by the Indiana Tax Review Board. Pastor Martin Jones represented the congregation in a hearing at the Court House in Shoals, Indiana on February 11, before a hearing judge, in a humble and professional manner, according to those present, who had filled the hearing room. This is a great victory that God has wrought and the congregation at Trinity Springs is giving all praise to the Lord Jesus Christ for this great victory for religious liberty. Trinity Springs had refused to fill out property tax forms that declared their church buildings including their place of worship to be a “commercial theater” and also to confess that the State was Lord over the church rather than the Lord Jesus Christ who purchased “It” with “His own blood.” Following are some of the comments that the Tax Board of Review made in recording their decision.
Trinity Springs Baptist Church is a New Testament Church in the Anabaptist tradition. The subject property was built as a church in 1856 and has been used exclusively as a church since that time. Until now, it has always been exempt from property taxation. Jones testimony.
A Letter of Notification stating the sole purpose of the property was for worship and explaining that filing an exemption application was against the Church’s religious precepts was accepted and filed by the Assessor on June 5, 2006. Petitioner Exhibit C; Jones testimony.
In 2008, the Martin County Assessor issued a Real Estate Tax Statement for Trinity Springs Baptist Church showing no tax due.
The Church appealed the matter to the PTABOA. The final adjudication from the PTABOA on July 13,2013, included the statement, “The PTABOA denied the letter that was presented. No form answering the specific questions was filed., no Articles of Incorporation or By-laws were filed and no financial statements were filed.” Petitioner’s Summary of the Issues.
The Church believes in separation of church and state. The Church cannot pay a tax of any kind for it would constitute a sin against God and constitute a recognition of another sovereign greater than Jesus Christ over the Church, its establishment, its properties, its ministries, its internal affairs, and its government. For the same reason, the Church cannot file an application for exemption from property taxation pursuant to Indiana Code section 6-1.1-11-3 and 3.5 because the filing of such application would operate as recognition of the authority of civil government to tax the Church.
The Church presented their cause to the Governor of Indiana 25 years ago. As a .result, the Governor instructed those in their respective offices to write a memorandum to all County Assessors on behalf of their unregistered churches. The memo allowed for a letter to be submitted during the filing period stating that the affected organization was unable to complete the form due to religious beliefs. For 25 years, churches have been able to get religious exemptions following this format. This is the first time a Letter of Notification has been denied by an assessor. Jones Testimony.
The law granting the religious exemption in favor of Trinity Springs Baptist Church is overwhelming. Petitioner directs the Board’s attention to the following: State of Indiana Constitution, Bill of Rights, Article I, Sections 1,2,3, and 4; United States Constitution Bill of Rights, 1st Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. .. “); Indiana Code § 6-1.1-11-3 and 3.5 (“accommodation for religiously based objections to statutory requirement, when reasonable alternatives are available, i.e. notification”); and a Memorandum from the State Board of Tax Commissioners regarding exemptions for religious property. Petitioner’s Summary of the Issues. Jones Testimony.
As applied, the state statutes are unconstitutional, in that they deprive the congregation of their 1st Amendment right to the free exercise of their religion The 1st Amendment of the Constitution compels the government to accommodate a religiously based objection to the statutory requirement. Sherbert v. Verner, Review Board, Inc. Empl. Sec Div., 450 U.S. 67 L. Ed. 624, 101 S. Ct. 1425 (1981).
The 1st Amendment of the Constitution and the Indiana Bill of Rights require the State to accommodate religiously based objections to statutory requirements when reasonable alternatives are available. Reasonable alternatives to the filing of an application are available here as evidenced by the 1989 memo from the State Board of Tax Commissioners. Unquestionably, the property would qualify for exemption if Trinity Springs Baptist church was organized as a state corporation or unincorporated association.
The Letter of Notification filed in 2006 was accepted by the Assessor at that time. The law is clear that a church is not required to file for an exemption again unless it changes ownership or its use. In this case, Trinity Springs Baptist Church has not changed ownership or its use. Jones testimony.
For 25 years, any property where Pastor Greg A. Dixon has started a church, the property has been exempt from property taxes. For example, over the past 13 years, Pastor Dixon has started 19 churches, mostly in the City of Indianapolis. Each year, the church sends a letter to Marion County requesting a religious exemption for the real and personal property. Marion County has always accommodated our faith and he hopes this court will do the same. Dixon testimony.
Martin County Assessor McGuire Testimony
There is no intent to harass anyone. The Assessor is acting in compliance with the Department of Local Government Finance requirements. Churches are required to file the proper paperwork to receive a property tax exemption. Trinity Springs Baptist Church did not file for an exemption, so its letter was denied. McGuire testimony.
In 2009, there was a memorandum stating that if the PTABOA approved the organization as a non-profit, the organization no longer had to flle after that. However, the last time the Church filed, the PTABOA denied the exemption. Because there were so many applications at that time, there was a mix-up and she signed the approval in error. McGuire testimony.
Any church building in Indiana is to be assessed as a theater according to the Department of Local Government Finance. McGuire rebuttal to Petitioner’s Summary of Issues.
Indiana Code section 6-1.1-1 0-1 6(a) states “All or part of a building is exempt from property taxation if it is owned, occupied, and used by a person for educational, literary, scientific, religious, or charitable purposes.” Further, “a tract of land … is exempt from property taxation if: (I) a building that is exempt under subsection (a) or (b) is situated on it; [or] (2) a parking lot or structure that serves a building referred in subdivision (I) is situated on it.” Ind. Code § 6-l.1-10-I6(c).
In this case, there is no dispute that the property is owned, occupied and used for religious purposes. It has always been a church, and has always received an exemption, Until 2013 when the Assessor denied the exemption based on the Church’s alleged failure to file what the Assessor deemed to be a proper exemption application. To the extent the Assessor disputes this fact, it is only because she claims that she incorrectly granted an exemption to the Church in 2009 due to a paperwork error.’
Regardless of the reason the Assessor denied the exemption application in 2013, she erred in doing so. In 2006, the Assessor granted the Petitioner an exemption based on the Letter of Notification. The Letter of Notification is an acceptable mechanism for claiming a religious exemption according to the State Board of Tax Commissioners. Petitioner Exhibit E. Under Indiana Code section 6-1.l-11A(d), the Church was not required to file an application for 2013 Because Petitioner was not required to file an application and the property met all of the other requirements of Indiana Code section 6l.l-11 A, the PTABOA erroneously denied the exemption.
The Petitioner proved it was entitled to a property tax exemption. The Respondent failed to rebut the Petitioner’s case. The Board finds for the Petitioner.
In accordance with the above findings and conclusions, the Board grants the Petitioner’s exemption on its real and personal property.
Commissioner, Indiana Board of Tax Review
To read two other stories filed about the Trinity Springs case go to the following sites: