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Volume 10 - Opinions of Counsel SBRPS No. 13

Opinions of Counsel index

Clergy exemption (Jehovah’s Witness) - Real Property Tax Law, § 460:

The Congregational Overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses is deemed to be the officiating clergy thereof and, if otherwise qualified, such person’s real property may receive the partial exemption provided by section 460 of the RPTL.

Our opinion has been sought as to applications an assessor has received for the clergy exemption (Real Property Tax Law, § 460) from members of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. The assessor states that many of these applicants have “secular” employment, but also go door-to-door preaching their religion.

RPTL, section 460, provides that real property owned by a “minister of the gospel, priest or rabbi of any denomination, an actual resident and inhabitant of this state, who is engaged in work assigned by the church or denomination of which he or she is a member” shall be exempt from taxation to the extent of $1500.

In 5 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 124, we concluded that:

The [§ 460] exemption applies to real property owned by a person whose principal occupation is and whose time is devoted to, the performance of the duties of a clergyman. * * * Thus when a clergyman also engages in a secular occupation or employment, it becomes a question of fact of whether the clergyman is engaged in the performance of his duties as such, or whether in fact he is engaged in the pursuit of a nonreligious occupation and his duties as a clergyman are merely secondary or of a part time nature.

In 5 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 54, we concluded that there is no requirement in section 460 that the applicant be an officiating clergyman of a religious corporation. Rather, if a clergyman occupying an administrative post is engaged in the work assigned to him by the church or denomination of which he is a member, he may receive an exemption pursuant to section 460.

In determining potential eligibility under section 460, the assessor should not grant the exemption merely upon presentation of a card saying that the person is an ordained minister. An applicant, in our opinion, must demonstrate the existence of a congregation and a place of worship, the holding of regular religious services and significant service to his or her congregation. Moreover, power to act as a minister of the gospel, priest or rabbi must come from the congregation. The applicant must demonstrate that he or she is “engaged in the work assigned by the church or denomination of which he or she is a member” (RPTL, § 460), and that the applicant is “appointed to lead the congregation” (see, Ingham v. Town of Dickinson, 192 A.D.2d 813, 597 N.Y.S.2d 173 (3d Dept. 1993)). If the applicant cannot demonstrate eligibility, the exemption should be denied.

In the present case, a Congregational Overseer of Jehovah’s Witnesses, while he or she may not have received a degree in divinity from an accredited school of ministry, is nevertheless considered to be a minister of Jehovah’s Witnesses, who has been ordained in accordance with the rules and principles prescribed by the denomination. As such a minister, the Congregational Overseer is appointed by the governing body of the denomination to preside over and direct the spiritual functions and practices of the local congregation, and is authorized to perform the ordinary rites and ceremonies recognized and employed by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. We distinguish the Overseer from other ordained members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, as the other ordained members are not ministers, priests or their equivalent, and do not lead the congregation, as the statute requires (see also, 4 Op.Counsel SBEA No. 70 [cantor] and 6 id. No. 78 [deacon]).

July 26, 1995