- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 29, 2002

A Christian ministry in Arizona, which was told last year it had to pay property taxes on its television production facilities, has now learned those charges were unwarranted and will be refunded.
"We're pleased that this tax dispute has been resolved and that the ministry won't be taxed on property that is clearly used for tax-exempt purposes," said Stuart J. Roth, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice.
ACLJ, a public interest law firm specializing in religious rights cases, filed a lawsuit in December in the Arizona Supreme Court on behalf of the ministry, Good Friends Inc. of Avondale and its pastor, Rev. Ron Hembree.
The suit charged that Maricopa County tax assessors and the Arizona Department of Revenue acted improperly when they refused to grant tax-exempt status to all the property owned and operated by Good Friends Inc.
"We believe it was inappropriate for tax officials to tax the land that housed the organization's television production facilities," Mr. Roth said.
"The [television production] property should not have been treated differently than the other land owned by the ministry. We're encouraged by the determination that the tax officials will now treat the entire property as exempted from property taxes a move that's proper and just," he added.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Mr. Roth said county tax officials "were saying the television facilities were not being used for religious purposes," but their assertions were "so wrong."
"This organization is a ministry whose main purpose was television programming, whose purpose is to spread the Gospel," Mr. Roth said.
The suit contended that the television production facilities were an integral part of the ministry. It noted that Good Friends Inc. produces a daily show dealing with the study of the Bible and other religious programs.
The lawsuit further noted that the Arizona Department of Revenue exempts the ministry from income-tax payments.
As a resolution to the dispute, the parties agreed to a judgment that calls for the county to designate the entire property as being exempt from property taxes and to refund the amount the ministry paid in property taxes for the year 2001.
Mr. Roth was unable to say how much of a refund Good Friends Inc. will receive, but estimated it will be in the $1,500 to $2,000 range. "It wasn't a huge amount," he said.
But he said Good Friends Inc. and ACLJ were contesting the idea that "taxing authorities could come into facilities where [people] are broadcasting the Gospel and claim it wasn't religious."
"It's kind of outrageous," Mr. Roth said.
He was unable to provide the total acreage of the ministry's land in Avondale. But he said the television facilities represented 10 percent of the tract of land and that Maricopa County tax officials designated the other 90 percent tax-exempt.
"This is not the first time we've seen local tax authorities target religious broadcasters. Local governments are strapped for cash, and they are looking for ways to find more revenues.
"So they are trying to see what properties are not paying real property taxes" to determine if that situation can be changed, Mr. Roth said.
"We've seen a lot of that activity this year," he said, citing similar cases in Florida, Tennessee and Washington state.
Mr. Roth said many of those targeted are "parachurch ministries," which he described as "full-blown ministries" but which "don't have Sunday services."
He said these organizations are often stuck with paying unwarranted tax bills because their tax liability costs less than if they had to pay a private attorney to fight the levies in court.


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