It seems reasonable that a 1.3-acre patch of grass, trees and tasteful landscaping in the heart of Downtown Madison provides enough free, public benefit to qualify it for tax-exempt status.
Outside of the Capitol grounds, there is little green space of any consequence in this area booming with new residential construction. Downtown’s denizens should enjoy a park-like atmosphere to toss the football or do a little smooching under the stars.
Although tossing the football and smooching while on Jesus’ path to crucifixion might be a little weird.
St. Raphael’s congregation is asking the city to remove from the tax rolls the 1.3-acre parcel it owns at the corner of West Main and South Fairchild streets because a little over a year ago it was outfitted with a winding path and stone markers commemorating the 14 Stations of the Cross.
The Stations are supposed to be temporary, but the congregation says the property – valued at about $4.1 million — should qualify for the same exemption given properties with churches on them.
That would be a good deal for the congregation, as taxes on the property were more than $100,000 in 2013, and the Stations’ estimated cost was between $50,000 and $100,000.
As a Christian, I don’t really have a problem exempting religiously owned land, although the most compelling reason for such exemptions is that religious properties are commonly used for many secular communal and charitable purposes.
Churches and other religious buildings host soup kitchens, Girl Scout meetings, Alcoholics Anonymous and other uses.
Even when buildings are being used for worship, collections taken by the faithful regularly go to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and complete other works of mercy in the secular world.
Given its location, the St. Raphael’s property might be the perfect place for “tiny houses,” public bathrooms, an open-air food pantry or other help for Madison’s homeless. But it would appear these kinds of uses either aren’t possible or haven’t been welcomed there.
City assessor Mark Hanson said the Stations property presents an unusual situation because it’s not connected to other church property.
The question is whether “what they’re doing with it … constitute(s) religious use,” he said. Under state law, the property would qualify for a religious tax exemption if it is used “exclusively” by a religious group.
Monsignor Kevin Holmes, who oversees St. Raphael’s as part of the Cathedral Parish, didn’t respond to my requests for comment. But in 2012 as the Stations were going in, he suggested the property would serve secular needs as well.
“We want this to be a beautiful space in the center of the city and a gift to our neighbors and everyone who comes Downtown,” he told this newspaper.
Still, property developed to commemorate the path Jesus took from condemnation to crucifixion and burial will probably be plenty religious enough to qualify for at least a partial tax exemption.
But a path filled with help for the addicted, food for the hungry or even a pretty place outdoors to steal a kiss from the one you love sounds a lot more Christian to me.