Originally created 10/24/98

Lands' status at issue



Georgia voters will decide on election day whether to broaden property-tax exemptions on church land and other real estate owned by religious organizations.

Approval of Referendum C on the Nov. 3 ballot would make all property owned by churches eligible for exemption from local property taxes. The measure already has received approval from the Georgia Legislature and Gov. Zell Miller.

State law provides property tax exemptions for cemeteries, schools, public property and charitable and nonprofit agency sites, as well as places of worship.

But some county property appraisers see dollar signs when they look at church-owned gymnasiums, family life centers, administration and school buildings, parking lots and even idle land, because they interpret "places of worship" as church sanctuaries and not much else.

Fulton County collects more than $400,000 in property taxes each year on Georgia Baptist Hospital and more than $100,000 from the North American Mission Board, said the Rev. Don Wheless, executive director of the Augusta Baptist Association. The mission board and the hospital are owned by the Georgia Southern Baptist Convention.

When it comes to granting exemptions for church property, Richmond and Columbia counties have traditionally taken a lenient view, said Linda Vrana, deputy chief appraiser in Richmond County.

"As long as the property is not income-producing and is used by the church, then it more than likely will be tax exempt," Ms. Vrana said.

Consequently, the Baptist association's building on Marks Church Road is exempt, the Rev. Wheless said. It's one of the few such buildings in the state that is tax-free.

The office provides training and support for clergy, which the Southern Baptist denomination considers part of its mission. Worship services are not held there, but that's not a reason to deny an exemption, the Rev. Wheless said.

"It's all going for the same purpose," he said.

Richmond County officials interpret the state law as exempting most church-owned property. Some other counties apply the exemption only to the sanctuary and land around it. Referendum 3 in those counties would have a big impact, but there would be little, if any, change in Richmond County, Ms. Vrana said.

The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't support Referendum 3.

An exemption is giving public assistance to religious groups, said Debbie Seagraves, the organization's executive director in Atlanta. Her organization opposes exemptions for religious groups.

"It sets up government as an arbiter of what is and is not a religion. What do nonreligious folks or atheists do?" she said.

The ACLU does not oppose churches' receiving an exemption if they qualify under the charitable organizations category, don't discriminate against recipients on the basis of religionand don't disseminate a religious message through their work, she said.

Richmond County does not give churches the tax exemption automatically. Churches have to apply. Organizations denied an exemption, however, can appeal to the county's board of assessors, Ms. Vrana said.

Living Word Christian Center on Old McDuffie Road got a property tax bill when its building project was stalled, leaving the congregation with an unfinished and unusable church. Church members took it to the board and won some relief, Ms. Vrana said. Part of the tax bill was forgiven.

If a church purchases land for future development, Richmond County will send a tax bill. But Columbia County wouldn't, said George Brown, chief appraiser for Columbia County.

Abilene Baptist Church bought property on Evans-to-Locks Road for a new church years ago, then decided to stay at its present location on Washington Road near Bobby Jones Expressway. When members hung a for-sale sign on the property to resell it, Columbia County listed the parcel on the taxable side of the ledger, Mr. Brown said.

"Their intent at that time was not to use it for worship," he said.

Virginia Norton covers religion for The Augusta Chronicle. She can be reached at (706) 823-3336 or vanorton@augustachronicle.com.