Local officials challenge tax exemption for closed churches in Pennsylvania

.- The Diocese of Allentown’s closure of several churches has prompted two school districts and two municipalities to try to levy property taxes on the closed parishes. The government entities argue that the properties have lost their tax-exempt status by closing.

The Bethlehem Area School District, which faces a deficit of nearly $5 million, plans to appeal the tax-exempt status of four closed south Bethlehem churches.

''If a private citizen had a warehouse, we'd have to tax them,” said district superintendent Joseph Lewis, according to the Morning Call.

The four churches reportedly have a total assessed value of $928,700 and would require $40,045 in taxes if their exempt status is ended.

The Panther Valley School District wants to tax seven closed churches in Carbon and Schuylkill counties.

Beaver Meadows and Banks township have also appealed the tax status of closed churches, meaning eight closed churches could be reassessed.

The Diocese of Allentown closed nearly 50 churches in the summer of 2008 in response to a priest shortage and a population shift from the city to the suburbs.

Diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr did not say how the diocese might respond to the taxation proposals, saying that the diocese is “monitoring the situation and assessing our options.”

According to the Morning Call, the Monday meeting of the Bethlehem school board showed tensions over the reassessment effort.

''Why are we going after them?'' asked School Director Rosie Amato, a Catholic. ''I can't believe we would do something like this.''

She said the law is too ambiguous to challenge the diocese, which she said is facing the same economic problems the government is.

Director Irene Follweiler, also a Catholic, said the board has a duty to determine which properties are exempt and which are not.

“If they truly fall under the tax-exempt umbrella, fine. If not, we should tax them,” she said, the Morning Call reports.

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April 24, 2014

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