PALM BEACH COUNTY'S DENIAL OF PROPERTY TAX EXEMPTION TO ANIMAL RESCUE GROUP ARGUABLY UNCONSTITUTIONAL
Jennifer Sorentrue of the Palm Beach Post summarizes the procedural history of this case well in her May 9 and May 16 articles. The non-profit animal rescue group owns a 5,900-square-foot luxury home, stables and kennels on 7.3 acres in Wellington. The group applied for a charitable property tax exemption last year, but the Palm Beach County property appraiser denied the request on the ground that the house was being used as a residence for the foundation trustee's family
The rescue group appealed the property appraiser's decision to the Palm Beach County Value Adjustment Board, which oversees property tax exemptions. The special magistrate assigned to the case ruled in favor of the animal rescue group, ultimately agreeing that the vast majority of the estate qualified under the charitable exemption requirements. The Value Adjustment Board unanimously approved the magistrate's decision at its April 17 meeting.
The Palm Beach County property appraiser, Gary Nikolits, subsequently filed suit against the Value Adjustment Board alleging that the Board exceeded its authority when it granted the exemption. According to Nikolits, the Board did not have authority to approve the magistrate's decision because Florida law requires a property owner to make a "good faith" payment during the pendency of a petition challenging a property tax assessment, and the animal rescue group had not paid its property tax bill. This is what prompted payment of the tax bill.
The animal rescue group plans to seek a refund if the Value Adjustment Board's decision is upheld in court. Approximately $86,000 (plus penalties and interest) is at stake. That's $86,000 that could be better spent on rescuing and caring for abused and abandoned animals.
In my opinion, the property appraiser's initial denial of the exemption and subsequent challenge illustrates a blatant and impermissible entanglement of government and religion. Here's why: the property appraiser's primary reason for denying the exemption is that the house is also being used as a residence by the foundation's principals. Yet, home-based churches and clergy housing receive property tax exemptions on religious grounds throughout Palm Beach County.
Let me be clear: I'm not saying that these religious exemptions should be denied. I recognize the importance of religion in society and believe that its presence should be facilitated and accommodated. Significantly, however, "[t]he First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state . . . and [t]hat wall must be kept high and impregnable." Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947). This means that the government must be neutral with respect to religion. This means that government may neither favor nor burden religion. Palm Beach County's allowance of property tax exemptions for home-based religious organizations and denial of charitable property tax exemptions for this home-based animal rescue group effects a symbolic endorsement and preference for religious charities over non-religious charities. Government cannot constitutionally convey a message that religion is preferred over non-religion. County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989).