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WAY OF THE CROSS

The Way of the Cross on the site of the former St. Raphael's Cathedral. 

The Downtown property that once held St. Raphael’s Cathedral, a church rectory and a religious school doesn’t qualify for a property tax exemption for religious use, a Dane County judge ruled Tuesday.

While Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford agreed that the property is being used for a religious purpose, it failed to satisfy a second requirement under state law that the property is “necessary for (the) location and convenience of buildings,” such as a future cathedral to replace St. Raphael’s, which was lost to an arson fire in 2005.

St. Raphael’s Congregation, the listed owner of the property at 204 W. Main St., sued the city last year, claiming it was improperly assessed property taxes for 2014 for the parcel because it still serves a religious purpose following construction of a Way of the Cross on the property, made up of 14 stations commemorating key locations along the route that Jesus took on the day of his crucifixion.

After it opened the Way of the Cross, the congregation asserted that the property was being used for a religious purpose. It sued to recover property taxes paid in 2013, but Dane County Circuit Judge Richard Niess ruled that it hadn’t applied for a religious exemption for the property in time.

In January 2014, the congregation filed a timely property tax exemption with the city, but the city denied the request in November 2014. The property was assessed at just over $4 million, and the congregation paid $98,480 in property taxes.

In January 2015 the congregation asked for a property tax refund, and the city denied that claim.

The issues, Lanford wrote, were whether the property was “exclusively used” for religious purposes and whether it is “necessary for (the) location and convenience of buildings,” which are both required by state law to be exempt from property tax.

The congregation maintains that the Way of the Cross is an exclusively religious use, while the city said few religious services are held there, and the area is instead used by the public, including to walk dogs.

Just 20 prayer services were held there in 2013 and 26 in 2014, but because the Way of the Cross is always open for religious contemplation, Lanford said the property is used exclusively for a religious purpose.

“While the organized religious services taking place at the property are sporadic, this does not mean that the religious significance of the imagery on the property is lessened,” Lanford wrote.

But it was the second prong where the lawsuit fails, Lanford said. The congregation argued that the property is necessary for the construction of a new cathedral and necessary for the convenience of other nearby church properties, such as St. Patrick’s Church and Holy Redeemer Church.

The city argued that the property’s exemption shouldn’t be based on the Madison Catholic Diocese’s uncertain future intended use of the property.

“While the (diocese) here has acquired property in preparation for the construction of the new cathedral,” Lanford wrote, “it has not submitted plans of any kind into this record. (The diocese) here requires the institution of a significant capital campaign to get the money to begin construction, and it will not have this money until some uncertain time in the future.”

A mere intention to build a cathedral on the property is not enough, she wrote.

Diocese spokesman Brent King said in a statement Thursday that the diocese “will consider and thoroughly explore all of our options for the Cathedral property.”

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Ed Treleven is the courts reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.