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Volume 1 - Opinions of Counsel SBEA No. 58

Opinions of Counsel index

Religious exemptions (Foundation for the Study of American Yoga and Tibetan Buddhist Doctrines, Inc.) - Real Property Tax Law, § 421:

Real property owned by the Foundation for the Study of American Yoga and Tibetan Buddhist Doctrines, Inc. would be entitled to exemption from real property taxation if the actual and exclusive use of the property is consistent with the corporation’s charter purposes.

Opinion has been requested as to the taxable status of real property owned by the Foundation for the Study of American Yoga and Tibetan Buddhist Doctrines, Inc.

In order for the Foundation to be tax exempt, the conditions imposed by section 421 of the Real Property Tax Law must be satisfied. These conditions are as follows:

1. The association or corporation must be organized exclusively “for the moral or mental improvement of men and women, or for religious, bible, tract, charitable, benevolent, missionary, * * * educational * * * purposes.”

2. The property must be used exclusively for carrying out thereupon one or more of the enumerated purposes.

3. No officer, member or employee of the organization may receive or be lawfully entitled to receive any pecuniary profit from its operations except reasonable compensation for services in effecting the purposes or as proper beneficiaries of its strictly charitable purposes.

4. The organization cannot be a guise or pretense for directly or indirectly making any other pecuniary profit for such organization or for any of its members or employees.

The Foundation’s charter provides that the corporation is organized for the following purposes:

“The specific and primary purposes for which the corporation is formed are to instruct its members in the use of American yoga and Tibetan Bhuddist (sic) Doctrines, principles and techniques for liberating the body, speech and mind from inhibiting environmental conditioning, and to translate from original sources Tibetan Bhuddist (sic) Doctrines into English and to publish the same.

“The general purposes for which the corporation is formed are to operate exclusively for charitable, religious, educational, scientific and literary purposes including the doing of any and all acts and things which a non-profit membership corporation is empowered to do, which may be necessary, convenient or desirable in the administration of the affairs and for the full attainment of the general purposes of the corporation, provided that all acts and things shall in themselves be in furtherance of the purposes specified in this article ‘SECOND’.

“Nothing herein contained shall authorize the doing of any act which would require the approval of any department of the State of New York or the doing of any act mentioned in § 11 of the Membership Corporations Law or § 35 of the Social Welfare Law of the State of New York.”

As a general rule of construction, statutes granting tax exemptions to real property must be strictly construed against the taxpayer (People ex rel. Mitzpah Lodge v. Burke, 228 N.Y. 245, 126 N.E. 703; People v. Brooklyn Garden Apartments, 283 N.Y. 373, 28 N.E.2d 877). However, the exemption accorded by section 420 should not be construed so literally as to defeat the established purpose of fostering the purposes enumerated in the statute (Plattsburgh College B. & E. Association v. Board of Assessors, 43 Misc.2d 741, 252 N.Y.S.2d 229).

The first requirement is that the Foundation be organized exclusively for one or more of the enumerated purposes. This is determined by examining the purposes and objects in the certificate of incorporation and constitution and bylaws if any (Great Neck Section, etc. v. Board of Assessors, 198 N.Y.S.2d 623; Good Will Club of Amsterdam, N.Y., Inc. v. City of Amsterdam, 31 Misc. 2d 1096, 222 N.Y.S. 2d 896; American-Russian Aid Ass’n. v. City of Glen Cove, 41 Misc. 2d 622, 246 N.Y.S.2d 123).

Webster’s dictionary (Third New International Dictionary) defines “Yoga” as:

“A Hindu theistic philosophy teaching the suppression of all activity of body, mind, and will in order that the self may realize its distinction from them and attain liberation; a system of exercise for attaining bodily or mental control and well-being.”

The purposes as set forth in its certificate of incorporation indicate that the Foundation is primarily organized to practice the theistic (God believing) or religious aspects of Yoga and to pursue the study of the same.

Yoga as a religious philosophy is not a conventional religion. But, as one court has said, the “legal status of the relator’s corporation purposes is not altered by the fact that its doctrines are unconventional * * *” (People ex rel. Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Mastin, 191 Misc. 899, 80 N.Y.S.2d 323). In addition, it is not necessary that it be a recognized religious sect or denominational church (People ex rel. Outer Court of the Order of the Living Christ v. Miller, 161 Misc. 603, 292 N.Y.S. 674, aff’d 256 App. Div. 814, 10 N.Y.S.2d 208, aff’d 280 N.Y. 825), nor does the fact that physical training is also a purpose disqualify it, when this activity is strictly in furtherance of the main purpose (Buffalo Turn Verein v. Reuling, 281 N.Y.S. 545). The other purposes set out in the certificate also qualify as being for the moral or mental improvement of men and women, charitable, missionary or educational purposes.

An opinion as to the second requirement - that the property be used exclusively for carrying out thereupon one or more of the enumerated purposes - is rendered difficult because each case must necessarily be decided upon its own facts. The local assessor must investigate the actual use of the property and he must satisfy himself that the property is being used exclusively for the charter purposes.

If the assessor is satisfied that the actual and exclusive use of the real property is consistent with the charter purposes, then, in our opinion, the property is exempt from real property taxation.

February 3, 1972