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ERLC entitled to tax exemption from D.C. government, judge rules

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission is entitled to an exemption from property tax by the District of Columbia, a judge has ruled.

In her opinion, D.C. Superior Court Judge Cheryl Long said the district improperly intruded into the ERLC’s religious mission by refusing to grant the agency a tax exemption for its Leland House office. The ERLC is entitled to a refund of more than $70,000 in taxes it has paid since unsuccessfully filing for the exemption, plus interest at a rate of 6 percent.

The decision came more than three years after the D.C. government denied a property tax exemption to the ERLC. The district rejected the ERLC’s request because it said the agency used its office for “policy issue advocacy.” When the district refused to reverse its decision after an appeal from the ERLC, the SBC agency filed suit in D.C. Superior Court in late 1998.

Long ruled the ERLC’s use of its office is “essentially religious” and the “alleged political lobbying was not a substantial part” of the commission’s activities or its use of the property. The district’s contention the ERLC is a “legislation-oriented organization” is “completely shallow” and “has no basis [in] the record or the law,” she wrote.

“The unchallenged facts [show] that Bible-based religious doctrine requires the public advocacy that is done by the [ERLC],” Long wrote. “Such ‘missionary activity,’ or advocacy that is ancillary to [the ERLC’s] religious purpose, does not” disqualify the commission from entitlement to a property tax exemption, she said.

The D.C. government also was inconsistent in refusing to grant the ERLC a property tax exemption because of policy advocacy after granting the agency an exemption from income taxes, sales tax and personal property tax, Long said.

ERLC trustees were briefed on the ruling during their mid-September meeting. Since the late-July decision, the ERLC has asked Long to reconsider the portion of her opinion in which she rejected its claim the district had violated the agency’s equal protection rights. If the judge reverses her decision on this claim, attorneys’ fees will be awarded to the ERLC.

The ERLC had filed for the property tax exemption in early 1994 when it purchased a townhouse as its Leland House office a few blocks from the U.S. Senate’s office buildings. Prior to that time, the agency had leased office space near the Capitol since 1989. The ERLC’s main office is in Nashville, Tenn.

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