Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Tioga County in case of Mount Zion New Life Center v. Board of Assessment and Revision of Taxes and Appeals, No. 510 Civil Division, 1984.
Scott A. Williams, for appellant.
William A. Hebe, for appellee.
Judges Craig and Palladino, and Senior Judge Kalish, sitting as a panel of three. Opinion by Judge Craig.
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Mount Zion New Life Center appeals an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Tioga County which affirmed a decision of the Board of Assessment and Revision of Taxes and Appeals of Tioga County denying Mount Zion's petition for tax exemption as an actual place of regularly stated religious worship or as a purely public charity.
Mount Zion New Life Center is a Pennsylvania nonprofit corporation whose by-laws provide that the purpose of the corporation "shall be to establish and maintain (1) a retreat center for persons desiring to learn Christian living and discipleship, (2) a counseling service and prayer time, (3) a recluse [sic] for persons desiring spiritual encouragement, and (4) a center for Holy Spirit ministries."
One hundred and four acres of land in Union Township, Tioga County, owned by the corporation, serve as the site for the Mount Zion New Life Center. After granting tax exempt status for seven years, the board
[ 94 Pa. Commw. Page 441]
placed the land on the tax rolls in 1981. Mount Zion initiated this exemption request with respect to 1984 taxes.
Mount Zion contends that it is exempt from taxation under the General County Assessment Law.*fn1 However, the Fourth to Eighth Class County Assessment Law*fn2 applies here*fn3 because the acreage is located in a seventh class county, and is not in a city.*fn4
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The two pertinent provisions of the latter law state:
(a) The following property shall be exempt from all county, borough, town, township, road, poor, county institution and district and school (except in cities) tax, to wit:
(1) All churches, meeting-houses, or other actual places of regularly stated religious worship, with the ground thereto annexed necessary for the occupancy and enjoyment of the same;
(9) All real property owned by one or more institutions of purely public charity, used and occupied partly by such owner or owners and partly by other institutions of purely public charity and necessary for the occupancy and enjoyment of such institutions so using it;
Section 1 of the Fourth to Eighth Class County Assessment Law, 72 P.S. § 5453.202(a)(1) and (9).
The taxpayer has the burden of proving entitlement to an exemption from taxation. Lehigh Valley Co-Op. Farmers v. Bureau of Employment Security, Department of Labor and Industry, 498 Pa. 521, 447 A.2d 948 (1982).
1. Actual Places of Regularly Stated Religious Worship
The first question we address is whether the concept of regularly stated worship requires that the taxpayer schedule and conduct worship services according to an unchanging pattern.
In Mullen v. Commissioners of Erie County, 85 Pa. 288 (1877), Chief Justice Agnew stated:
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They must be places of stated worship. The word stated means fixed, established, occurring at regular times, as stated hours of business. So, statedly means at certain times, not occasionally.
Id. at 291 (emphasis in original).
The majority of retreatants who visit the Mount Zion New Life Center are members of church groups accompanied by their own clergy. Each group prepares its own schedule of daily events to be conducted during the retreat.*fn5 The dates on which a particular group will hold its retreat are scheduled by the group and Mr. Bauman, the Center's administrator.*fn6 During the group's stay, its own spiritual leader usually leads the worship and teaching sessions, at times accompanied by Mr. Bauman, who attends most worship and teaching sessions.
Because the scheduling of worship over the course of a year involves many different groups, the Center adheres to no established pattern of time and frequency of worship.
The trial court, in denying tax exemption, apparently concluded that the act requires that the taxpayer maintain a uniform, predetermined worship schedule. The court wrote:
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We have indicated that we received no testimony that the petitioners conducted regularly stated religious worship. The testimony indicates that most of the religious services are conducted by retreatants pursuant to their own programs. If one were to determine when and where the religious service was to be conducted, one must inquire of the schedule of the retreatants.
The Statutory Construction Act*fn7 requires that the courts strictly construe tax exemption provisions. However, the concept of regularly stated religious worship is not limited only to a house of worship which has a finite congregation and a sign or ...