In today’s tax dollar hungry environment, municipalities are consistently searching for ways to increase their ratable base and in this regard are viewing tax exemption claims even more critically. Real property tax exemptions are a creature of statute and run against the Constitutional mandate that all property is to be taxed uniformly, with all property owners required to shoulder their fair share of the local property tax burden. As such, these exemptions are to be strictly construed and it is the burden of the applicant to prove entitlement to the exemption. Abunda Life Church of Body, Mind & Spirit v. Asbury Park City, 18 N.J. Tax 483, 485 (1999) and Teaneck v. Lutheran Bible Inst., 20 N.J. 86, 90 (1955).
In a recently decided case, the New Jersey Tax Court held that although the municipality may have been correct in rejecting an exemption on the grounds that the property did not constitute a religious parsonage, it erred in denying the exemption as the property was deemed to be essential to the religious use and actually used in conjunction with the religious operations. Mikvah Association v. Township of Teaneck, Docket Nos 015784-2014; 012594-2105; 010909-2016; and 012807-2017.
The relevant exemption statute, N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6, provides an exemption for:
[A]ll buildings actually used in the work of associations and corporations organized exclusively for religious purposes, including religious worship, or charitable purposes, provided that if any portion of a building used for that purpose is leased to a profit-making organization or is otherwise used for purposes which are not themselves exempt from taxation, that portion shall be subject to taxation and the remaining portion shall be exempt from taxation … the buildings, not exceeding two, actually occupied as a parsonage by the officiating clergymen of any religious corporation of this State, together with the accessory buildings located on the same premises; the land whereon any of the buildings hereinbefore mentioned are erected, and which may be necessary for the fair enjoyment thereof, and which is devoted to the purposes above mentioned and to no other purpose and does not exceed five acres in extent ….
In Mikvah, the Tax Court rejected the availability of an exemption under the “parsonage” provision holding that the resident of the home, who was responsible for supervising the mikvah, did not qualify as an “officiating clergyperson.” There the court found that the resident in question did not perform the expected duties of an officiating clergyperson in the context of the Jewish faith in that she did not perform such critical “officiating” tasks as teaching, leading, participating in religious services, providing sermons, or officiating at Congregation weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. See City of Long Branch v. Ohel Yaacob Congregation, 20 N.J. Tax 511, 519 (2003).
Even though the court precluded exemption under the parsonage provision, it nonetheless found exemption of the residential structure to be appropriate in this instance because the resident of the property, which is located on the same street as the recognized exempt facility where religious bathing rituals are performed, was deemed to be the Ritual Director, responsible for maintenance and operation of the mikvah, and on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Because the religious organization property owner required the resident of the property to be physically proximate to the mikvah and readily accessible to ritual participants, the court found her to be a necessity for the proper and efficient operation of the mikvah and not simply residing in the residence as a matter of convenience for the resident. Consequently, the Tax Court concluded that the residential property in which the Ritual Director resided with her family, was “actually used” in the operation of the mikvah and qualified for exemption pursuant to N.J.S.A. 54:4-3.6