Exploring Pagans and their relationship with that earthiest of earth symbols, money.
"This sounds like a convent."
That's what one of the justices -- described by a courtroom regular as "very Catholic" -- remarked during oral arguments about the Maetreum of Cybele's property tax exemption case. The Town of Catskill gave this Pagan congregation the religious tax break in 2006, then yanked it, and it's been in court ever since. This afternoon it was before the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court of the State of New York, the lofty title given to the ''second''-highest court in the state. The appeal was to a lower court decision (that's the Supreme Court if you're keeping track) that determined that no, a property tax exemption was not necessary for what the ruling justice deemed was essentially a residence.
Four justices heard the oral arguments, with ten minutes from the appellant's attorney Deborah Schneer, then ten minutes from Daniel Vincellente for the town, and another minute of rebuttal by Schneer.
You only get an appeal if the lower court screwed up, and Schneer said that it had. "The trial court did not address at all the testimony which showed that the residential use cannot be distinguished from the religious use," she told the justices. The decision against the Cybellines had largely hinged on a decision in the case of a Sapphardic Jewish community in neighboring Sullivan county, in which the first floor of a building was devoted to religious practice and the two upper floors were the rabbi's residence. In that case, the courts had ruled that only the first floor would be exempted from property tax. Schneer instead pointed to a case in which a Hutterian colony was given full exemption because "living in community is central to their religious practice," as with the Cybellines.
Arguing for Catskill, Vincellente said that Justice Platkin's 17-page decision was quite thorough, and that he found testimony regarding the community's religious practice lacked credibility. Specifically, he was skeptical that Reverend Catherine Platine spends 30 hours a week counseling the three other members of the order. "Essentially, it's just a group home," he said.
"The fact that communal living was an integral part wasn't enough?" asked Justice McCarthy. "What other criticisms were in the decision?"
"That was the primary criticism," the attorney replied.
"Wasn't the primary use religious even without the counseling?" McCarthy pressed on. "The regular rituals and prayer sessions?" Daily rituals, lunar rituals, and solstice rituals had all been laid out for the court.
That's about when Justice Spain, the one described to me as "very Catholic," compared the order to a convent.
"It's not very much like a convent in what they believe, but that's what it sounds like to me," he said.
It appears that the justices "get it," as it were. Later, when I have more time, I will write about the underlying questions of a property tax/tax exemption system, and what it means to our society and our religions.
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