City News

A Madison parish has an unknown friend in the state Legislature. Religious freedom advocates don’t like it.

St. Raphael’s Parish erected a “Way of the Cross” on the ground where their church stood before it was burned down in 2005.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Churches are exempt from paying property taxes. But what if the church is gone and only the property remains?

St. Raphael’s Parish owns land on the corner of East Main and North Fairchild Streets near the state Capitol in Madison. It’s where their church used to stand — before it burned down in an arson in 2005.

The parish has fought the city over the years, claiming that they should not be required to pay taxes on the land, which now features a “Way of the Cross” — a pathway representing the stations of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion.

They haven’t had any success, until now.

A member of the state Legislature, whose identity isn’t known, snuck a property tax exemption into the biennial budget that seems to be written specifically for St. Raphael’s. The amendment applies to property owned by “churches and religious associations” that intend to “replace a building destroyed by fire, natural disaster, or criminal act,” and allows such properties to be tax-exempt.

Unsurprisingly, religious freedom advocates don’t like the amendment, and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, told The Capital Times that they would consider challenging it in court.

Critics of the amendment argue that it’s an unconstitutional breach of the First Amendment. They also say it’s concerning that one religious organization could influence policy for all of Wisconsin.

“I call it pork,” Patrick Elliot, senior counsel at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, told the Capital Times. “Somebody got the ear of somebody on the Joint Finance Committee to put this in, and it’s about to become law for the entire state.”

If the amendment becomes law, qualifying properties would earn tax exemption for 25 years.

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