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Tribe’s First Amendment Rights Not Violated by Denied Tax Exemption

by: Anthony F. Della Pelle
25 Apr 2012

In a recent unpublished opinion, a Tax Court judge held that the Ramapough Mountain Indians were not entitled to an exemption under N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6 for the use of their property for religious purposes.  The Ramapoughs argued that the statute is unconstitutional as applied to them because of the statute’s requirement that a building exist on any property to qualify for an exemption.  Specifically, they argued that the requirement violated their Free Exercise of Religion under the First Amendment.

The Tax Court held that the Ramapoughs’ First Amendment rights were not violated by the statute because “burdens, including tax burdens are permitted.” The Tax Court reasoned that the requirement was not intentionally discriminatory, and also treated all property owners similarly.  Moreover, “the power to grant or enlarge an exemption from taxation resides in the Legislature and may be exercised by that body consistent with state and federal constitutional requirements.”

The Ramapoughs also failed to qualify for an exemption under the requirements set forth In Paper Mill Playhouse v. Millburn Township, 95 N.J. 503 (1984).  There, the New Jersey Supreme Court established that a claimant must demonstrate: (1) it is organized exclusively for the moral and mental improvement of men, women and children; (2) the property must be actually used for the tax exempt purpose; and (3) the operation and use of the property must not be conducted for profit.  The documents submitted by the Ramapoughs established that the group failed to satisfy the first prong because the group was not organized exclusively for qualifying activities.  Additionally, the group failed to establish that the property had been used for tax exempt purposes during the qualifying period.

For more on property tax exemptions, please see the following blog posts:

Tax Court to Nonprofit – Only 2% Exempt

Property Tax Exemption for Sale

Property Tax Exemption Does Not Require Compliance With Municipal Zoning Ordinance

Newark Church Denied Property Tax Exemption