San Damiano (copy)

The San Damiano Friary in Monona, a nearly 10-acre parcel on the shore of Lake Monona, is one of the last undeveloped privately-owned areas on the lake.

Tax exemption is a privilege, not a right. An order of Catholic priests has abused this privilege at its 10-acre lakefront property in Monona and owes local taxpayers a hefty check.

When religious organizations act like property magnates and not churches, they have to pay property taxes. The rule is simple: to get the tax exemption for religious purposes, a property must be used for religious purposes. That means if you want your church to be exempt, people should, for instance, worship in that structure every week. What a church cannot do is simply hold onto desirable land and not pay taxes. Without this rule, churches could buy up property in a downmarket, hold it tax-free for years, and sell it off for a massive profit when the economy recovered.

The St. Norbert Abbey in De Pere has done just that. It ran the San Damiano friary, which hasn’t been a friary for half a decade, at a costly lakefront property it owns in Monona (4123 Monona Drive). Since the last priest moved off the property nearly five years ago, home values in Monona have increased by more than 55%. During that time, the Catholic order “leased to a couple of people who took care of the home in return for reduced rent.” In other words, the order was not only not using the property for religious purposes, the order was using it as a rental property to make money. This should lay to rest any misguided claims of religious freedom — the property was not used for religious purposes, but to turn a profit.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which I work for, has asked for an investigation into this tax dodging. The evasion only came to light because the priests did not adequately maintain the property and are now seeking to demolish the historic Allis House on the property.

This is not St. Norbert Abbey’s first problem with transparency. Over the last six decades, records show that at least 22 Norbertine priests were known to have abused minors, information only fully released earlier this year.

This is also not the first time a Catholic religious organization in Dane County has held a multimillion-dollar property and stiffed the taxpayers. The Catholic Diocese of Madison did the same thing with a property in downtown Madison, off West Washington Avenue. The property — nearly 57,000 square feet or about three-quarters of a full, downtown city block — was vacant and now only has a few small trees and minor markers. What it doesn’t have is a church or any regular church use. It’s an empty plot worth $4.5 million. So, a court ruled that the church had to pay taxes on it (disclosure: FFRF was instrumental in this court decision). The church paid more than $100,000 in taxes for several years to keep the valuable property, until it hired a lobbyist to push a special exemption through the Legislature.

Public documents do not show a current assessment for the St. Norbert 10-acre property, and no single property on Lake Monona is comparable. The plot is one of the only undeveloped spots left on the lake and “boasts more than 1,000 feet of shoreline and offers spectacular views of the state Capitol and downtown Madison,” according to reports. If the property is, conservatively, worth $5 million, the order owes nearly $110,000 in taxes for this year. And it should pay that for each of the last five years — plus interest.

The property could easily be worth much more. St. Norbert may have shorted taxpayers out of more than a million dollars over the last five years. We’re paying a higher tax bill to ensure better schools, recycling and more, all while St. Norbert is freeloading off of all Monona taxpayers. It needs to do the right thing and make them whole.

Andrew L. Seidel is an attorney and author. He is the director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. His first book, "The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism Is Un-American," hit shelves in May and was burned by a Tennessee preacher. When not fighting for the First Amendment, Seidel writes for Slate, ThinkProgress, Religion News Service, Rewire News and elsewhere. Follow him on social media: @AndrewLSeidel.

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