The Maetreum of Cybele and Tax Exemption Under the Real Property Tax Law of the State of New York:
A Brief Analysis and Commentary by Attorney Dana D. Eilers,
Author of PAGANS AND THE LAW: UNDERSTAND YOUR RIGHTS
©Dana D. Eilers, 2012
First, I have to thank Attorney Deborah Schneer for speaking with me on August 15, 2012 about the procedural history of this case. I was stumped as to why the County of Albany, New York was involved with a case involving property sited in Greene County, New York. The answer is that an Albany County Judge went over to Greene County to preside over the bench trial which occurred in Greene County. When typing the decision for the trial judge, the typist did not indicate that this was a decision arising out of Greene County. It might seem like a tiny point but really, it was important.
Points of reference
Please note that references to the Trial Court’s Decision are to the Slip Opinion found online as of August 14, 2012 at http://gallae.com/Matreum_v_Catskill_Decision-1.PDF. I refer to this decision as TD throughout this article.
References to the Summary Judgment decision are to the Slip Opinion found on line at http://www.scribd.com/doc/49872684/Maetreum-of-Cybele-Summary-Judgment-Decision. I refer to this decision as SJ throughout this article.
The short version of what happened
On August 2nd, 2012, the trial division of the Supreme Court of Greene County New York entered its Decision and Order After Trial in the case of Maetreum of Cybele Magna Mater, Inc. v. Nancy McCoy, et al. Therein, the Pagan petitioner Maetreum lost a long battle in the trial division of the state of New York. Maetreum was seeking a real estate tax exemption for the years 2009-2011 on property which it owned and which was located in the hamlet of Palenville, situated in the southwest section of the town of Catskill, in Greene County, New York.
The Assessor in the Town of Catskill, the first opponent listed in the masthead of opponents, was Nancy McCoy, and although it is never made entirely clear in either decision, she is the person who denied the exemption when it was filed in her office. (Although the written decision says that it came out of Albany County, Attorney Schneer says that the case was actually tried in Greene County.)
Judge Platkin (the trial judge) found that the Matreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, Inc., a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit religious corporation, failed to meet its burden of proof for an exemption under the Real Property Tax Law of the State of New York. The court reviewed the evidence presented in a two-day trial (occurring on November 16, 2011 and December 7, 2011) and then examined it under RPTL Sec. 420-a(1)(a) in order to reach its decision.
There are two written opinions on this matter, and both are important
This case has a tortuous procedural history. One simply cannot read the decision of the trial court (Judge Platkin) and get an understanding of what occurred. http://gallae.com/Matreum_v_Catskill_Decision-1.PDF.An earlier Summary Judgment motion had been filed and heard before a different judge, Judge Pulver. Judge Pulver also wrote a decision. The two decisions must be read together for a better view of the proceedings.
A thorough recitation of procedure would be both boring and long. So, for the purposes of this analysis, I offer a bare bones assessment of what occurred in terms of procedure.
The Maetreum filed for a real estate tax exemption with the Assessor’s office for the years 2009-2011. (This was a piece of paper, a copy of which I have not seen, nor were its contents set forth in either of the two decisions.) This was denied by the Assessor and the Board of Assessment Review. TD, at pg. 3. (Again, this was a piece of paper, a copy of which I have not seen, nor were its contents set forth in either of the two decisions.)
Maetreum sought legal relief from the denial by filing various Petitions in the New York State trial court. Then, at some point, the defendants/respondents filed a Motion for Summary Judgment. At page 2 of his Summary Judgment decision, Judge Pulver set forth the standard for winning this motion: “ . . . movants for summary judgment dismissing the proceeding . . . bear the initial burden to establish a prima facie showing of entitlement to judgment dismissing the cause of action as a matter of law and to tender sufficient evidence to eliminate any material issues of fact from the case . . . .”
The defendants/respondents did not meet this standard. They lost the Motion for Summary Judgment. In writing the Summary Judgment decision, Judge Pulver wrote some text which was rather favorable to the Maetreum.
The case moved onto a trial de novo with the trial judge acting as both judge and jury; that is, the trial judge was the arbiter of the facts. This was not a case tried to a jury. Trial was held on November 16 and December 7, 2011. During that trial, the Maetreum presented four witnesses and entered 27 exhibits into evidence. The defense entered 11 exhibits into evidence. On August 2, 2011, the trial judge (Platkin) entered his decision wherein he determined, in essence, that the Maetreum and had failed to meet its burden of proof and therefore, their case was dismissed.
I was not there, but I have some problems with all this
I could probably write a long and involved law review article about this case. Many things are not readily apparent from simply reading the two decisions in print, which are the Summary Judgment decision and the decision from the trial de novo. Even as I write this, I find myself wanting to review the exhibits entered in the SJ hearing, the trial testimony of the witnesses, and the exhibits entered into evidence at trial. This would take weeks, however, and there is a certain urgency to getting commentary out on these cases.
So, first let me say that I found the Summary Judgment decision to be poorly written. Usually, when writing a decision on a Summary Judgment motion, the court sets forth the evidence before it; then presents its findings of fact from the evidence; then analyzes those facts against the applicable law; and finally, enters its decision and order. Judge Pulver did none of this. He wrote a rather garbled opinion. This garbled opinion was, admittedly, favorable to the Maetreum: their case was not dismissed, and Judge Pulver questioned whether the town’s decision was motivated by prejudice rather than by the facts.
Next, I wonder why a Judge from the county of Albany goes over to hear a case in Greene County. What happened to Judge Pulver, who heard the Summary Judgment motion, and why is an Albany County judge going over to Greene County? Having presided over the Summary Judgment matter and having written a decision with language favorable to the Maetreum, I wonder whether the trial decision would have been the same had the case been tried before Judge Pulver. Doubtless, other people will do the same.
Then, in the trial de novo decision, Judge Platkin describes where the evidence came from: from four witnesses who testified on behalf of the Maetreum; from 27 exhibits presented by the Maetreum; and from 11 exhibits entered into evidence by the defendant/respondents. I assume that no witnesses testified on the stand for the defense, which would means that all the defense evidence was in the form of paper. No list of exhibits was attached to the decision; so, we as readers have no way of knowing, short of requesting and receiving them, what exactly all these exhibits were and what they showed. It makes analysis rather difficult, to say the least. We are left with bald decisions upon which to comment.
After reading the two decisions in print regarding this case, I might believe that the Judge Pulver, who heard the Motion for Summary Judgment and who wrote the first decision (dated February 22, 2011), was sympathetic to the Maetreum. However, in writing his decision, he may have tipped off the Defendants as to the type of evidence they would need to defeat the Maetreum. Reading the two decisions, it is hard to believe that the exhibit list was the same in both matters.
Also, Judge Pulver noted in his decision that no one had ever cross examined either Viktoria Whitaker or Danielle Ferrusi, both of whom submitted Affidavits. SJ Decision, at pg. 13. I take this to mean that no depositions were ever taken prior to the Summary Judgment and that no witnesses testified at the Summary Judgment hearing. Because the initial threshold in a Summary Judgment matter is to make sure that there are NO DISPUTED FACTS, the fewer the facts in evidence, the better. This usually accounts for why there is nothing in the form of actual testimony at these things.
So, when the bench trial in the case was heard in front of Judge Platkin, the Defendants had an evidentiary focus which had been sadly lacking in the prior proceedings. Following the trial de novo where Judge Platkin heard the testimony of witnesses and received exhibits into evidence, he wrote his Order and Decision After Trial, dated August 2, 2012. There, Judge Platkin set forth the evidence which he found controlling and based on that evidence, as analyzed against the law, he found that the Maetreum had failed to meets its burden of proof as to why it qualified for the religious/charitable exemption which would have enabled the Maetreum to avoid paying the real estate tax. In short, according to Judge Platkin, the Maetreum had not adequately proved that it was entitled to the real estate tax exemption.
Let’s look at the cloak of discrimination first
There are two matters that are in contention here: first, whether the Maetreum of Cybele was a religion; and second, whether the real estate owned by the religious corporation qualified for the tax exemption. In this regard, the Maetreum case is mindful of Roberts v. Ravenwood Church of Wicca, 249 Ga. 348 (1982); and of Dettmer v. Landon, 617 F. Supp. 592 (E.D. Va. 1985.) The first issue in both these cases was whether the religious adherents were actually members of a bona fide religion. In the Ravenwood case, the second tier of the case dealt with whether a three-bedroom house qualified for the real estate tax exemption. In the Dettmer case, the second tier of examination focused on whether the prisoner Plaintiff should have the religious items he requested. In both matters, the Pagan litigants won on the issue of religion, but both lost on the issue of should these religions have what they were requesting.
Right off, the Maetreum asserted that it was “improperly targeted.” SJ, at pg. 2. In other words, according to the Maetreum, the reason for the denial of their exemption was discriminatory and prejudicial.
Until the hearing for Summary Judgment and according to Judge Pulver, the only reason stated by the defendants for denying the exemption was that the “‘use of the building as housing for members of a religious order (convent) is not currently a legal use’ due to petitioner’s alleged failure to obtain the necessary permits and inspections.” SJ, at page 3. (I would really like to have seen the original piece of paper denying the exemption and viewing the language there. Judge Pulver did not reference what part of the court record his quotation came from.)
However, by the time of the of the Summary Judgment hearing, this had changed. The new objection to the exemption was that “the property’s use was not religious, but residential and furthermore, that the residential use was not incidental to or in furtherance of Petitioner’s religious purpose . . . [the] property primarily serves as a residence for Cathryn Platine and the other two permanent residents; religious activities at the subject property are limited to occasional events sponsored by the Petitioner that are rarely attended by congregants or the public.” SJ, at pgs. 4-5.
I was rather amazed that Judge Pulver actually entertained an objection to the exemption other than that initially put forth. He went to some lengths to explain WHY he has doing this. To view his reasoning in this regard, please see SJ, at pages 3-5. This is especially interesting in light of a tantalizing comment on the evidence made by Judge Pulver: “ . . . petitioner’s claim that respondents singled it out for discriminatory denial . . . finds some support in . . . Whittaker’s affidavit reporting that respondent Nancy McCoy acknowledged that respondents’ initial denial of the exemption was prompted by the specific request of a member of the Town Board.” SJ, at pg. 12.
There is no mention in either of the two decisions as to the process for denying the request for the exemption, whether that process was followed, and what occurred during the process. For example, was the Assessor required to take this request to the Town Board? Was the Town required to hold open hearings on the matter? If so, did such hearings occur? If those hearings occurred, what was said? Which Board member asked that the exemption be denied and on what basis? To me, these are critical fact issues which were not addressed by either judge. Were these facts even part of the record(s) before either of these judges?
Town meetings have been abundant sources of facts. Often, people cannot control themselves at these things, and the ugly face of discrimination appears. For example, the United States Supreme Court combed the minutes of a town’s meeting to uncover the overt hostility of the town toward a religious organization. Please see Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo v, City of Hileah, 508 U.S. 520, 536 (1993). Therefore, to me, the exchange between Nancy McCoy and the town board member is quite important.
Regarding the allegations of discrimination, Judge Pulver wrote: “This is not a case in which a taxpayer, who is engaged in no religious activity whatsoever, makes a sham declaration that he or she is a minister and all . . . property is exempt. Counsel acknowledges that petitioner sponsors certain purported religious activities on the premises. Nevertheless, counsel proposes to strip Petitioner of its religious status and strip petitioner’s adherents of the claims to being priestesses. Without bothering to set forth any personal expertise or subjective basis for his conclusion that petitioner is not a religious corporation or that its priestesses are not sufficiently religious to meet his standards for granting the tax exemption.” SJ at pg. 8.
Here, the defense is tipped off that there needs to be some sort of basis and evidence thereof that the Maetreum is “not sufficiently religious” to meet the burden of proof for granting the tax exemption.
As favorable as one would think this is, Judge Pulver also wrote in a footnote: “ . . . there has been no proof offered by respondents (or, for that matter, petitioner) as to how the named ‘priestesses’ do or do not further a particular religious tenet, an issue which may be crucial to the eventual determinations to be made in this proceeding.” SJ, at pg. 8, fn. 1. Perhaps Judge Pulver was not so sympathetic as one might think. Again, the defense is tipped off that the evidence must address whether the property is being used to further the religion in question.
At the trial level, Judge Richard M. Platkin dealt with the idea of whether the Maetreum was a religion not at the beginning of his decision, but toward the end. Almost reluctantly, he specifically stated: “ . . .the Court is mindful that it ‘may not inquire into or classify the content of the doctrine, dogmas, and teachings held by that body to be integral to its religion but must accept that body’s characterization of its own beliefs and activities and those of its adherents, so long as that characterization is made in good faith and is not a sham’ . . .The Court has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the religious and spiritual beliefs of the adherents of the Cybeline Revival who testified in these proceedings.” TD, at pg. 16.
For all the Pagans who might be concerned that the trial court did not seriously consider this matriarchal Pagan religion, the standard applied was, in essence, the same “sincerely held religious belief” standard used for Catholics in the recent Colorado case involving Hercules Industries and the Affordable Care Act’s provisions on employee coverage for contraception. Newland v. Sebelius, United States Dist. Ct. Colo., Civil Action No. 1:12-cv-1123-JLK (July 7, 2012), written by Judge John L. Kane, at page 4. For an excellent discussion on this standard and the Title VII litigation out of which it arises, please see http://eeoconsultations.com/blog/?p=147.
Just as in the Newland case involving Catholics, the court in Matreum did not question or analyze the religion for validity. Its validity was taken at face value. Frankly, who would disbelieve the validity of a religion where its adherents, however few, would undergo lengthy, costly litigation, risk national ridicule, and experience financial hardship in a lawsuit which raked over facts dating back to 2002? In the Newland case, there was no discussion of whether the owners of the Hercules business were Catholics, and there was no discussion of whether they were sincere Catholics. Neither does Judge Platkin, in the Maetreum decision, question whether the women were adherents of a matriarchal goddess religion or whether they were sincere in their belief.
What Judge Platkin did question was whether the primary use of the property was in furtherance of that religion.
One of my own particular pet peeves can be seen in the court’s description of the Cybeline Revival. At page 2 of his decision, Judge Platkin states that the Matreum is the corporate entity for the Cybeline revival, “described by its adherents as pagan religious faith.” Please note the lower case used in the word “pagan.” When designating any religion, who uses something than upper case letters? Do we say “christians,” “hindus,” “jews,” “muslims,” or “catholics?” No, we do not. Upper case letters are always used: that is, these words are always capitalized, as are the faiths to which these adherents belong. In this part of the trial court’s decision, I see some inherent failure of the court to take the Cybelines seriously.
However, the court may have taken its cues from other sources in the court record. Did the Cybelines themselves and their attorneys always refer to a “pagan faith?” Were they diligent in giving themselves respect and credibility?
Still, giving the trial court its due, it DID always refer to the women involved as “Cybelines,” using the capital “C.” Begrudgingly, there does appear to be a certain amount of respect and believability afforded by the court to the members of this religion
So, Pagan people, when trying to persuade governments or courts that you are a serious adherent to a faith, a spiritual path, a religion, or whatever you want to call it, please refer to yourselves in capital letters, such as “I am a Pagan,” or “My religion is part of Pagan spirituality,” or “I am part of Paganism.” Use the capital “P” when using this word and its derivatives. Also, use capitals when referring to your specific religious/spiritual path such as “Asatru,” “Druid,” “Celtic Reconstructionist,” “Odinist,” “Wiccan,” etc. You should always say: “I am a Wiccan”; “I am an Odinist,” etc. Do not use lower case letters to describe yourself. Baptists do not. Lutherans do not. Why should you?
The New York State Property Tax Exemption
So, what was the law involved here?
Judge Platkin set forth the applicable New York statute at page 8 of the Maetreum decision. RPTL Sec. 420-a(1)(a) provides:
Real property owned by a corporation . . . organized or conducted exclusively for religious , charitable, hospital, educational, or moral or mutual improvement of men, women or children purposes, or for two or more such purposes, and used exclusively for carrying out thereupon one or more of such purposes either by the owning corporation . . . or by another such corporation . . . as hereinafter provided shall be exempt from taxation as provided by this section.
Under New York law, the exemption is never presumed or preferred; rather, the burden lies on those seeking the exemption to establish that the subject property comes within the language of the exclusion. TD, at pg. 9. Also under New York law, there were four elements to this burden of proof. TD, at pg. 9. Like the town and its officers, the court focused on the first two elements of this burden: the corporation had to be organized exclusively for the purposes enumerated in the statute and the property had to be used primarily in furtherance of such purposes. TD, at pg. 9.
What should now be apparent is that just because the religious corporation had 501(c)(3) status, this did not not automatically mean that the tax exemption would be granted.
Curiously, “exclusive” did not really mean EXCLUSIVE in this case. Rather, quoting precedent, the use of the word “exclusive” REALLY means “principal” or “primary.” TD, at pgs. 9-10.
Finally, the facts
In law school, my Contracts professor taught us that always, we should outline the “factual facts” (as opposed to the procedural facts) and that these factual facts should be set forth in chronological order so that they told the story, from its beginning to its conclusion. He said that your version of how the decision should go ought to be apparent from the factual narrative. Whenever I wrote a section of a brief or a legal memorandum, I tried to do this so that no one was surprised by the mention of a fact in the legal analysis which had not first been covered in the factual narrative. I really wish that the two judges here had been in Contracts class. Things might have been clearer.
The requirements of exclusivity, principal, and primary use are where the Cybelines met their downfall, according to Judge Platkin’s view of things. Looking at the facts arising out of the “credible proof adduced at trial,” Judge Platkin found that “the primary and predominant use of the property was to provide cooperative housing for a small group of individuals, with the religious and charitable uses of the property merely incidental to this residential use.” TD, at pg. 10.
The trier of fact, be it a judge (as in this case) or a jury, is entitled to believe or disbelieve witnesses, to believe or disbelieve in the genuineness of documents. The trier of fact can believe or disbelieve in the credibility of a witness. The trier of fact is free to believe everything a witness says, part of what a witness says, or none of what a witness says. (For an example of these principles in action, please see http://www.probono.net/ny/library/attachment.61979.
So, just because a witness says something, the trier of fact is not required to believe it.
This is important here because Judge Platkin comes flat out and comments on the credibility of the defendant’s main witness Ms. Platine, known in the Maetreum as the Reverend Mother Battakes. Judge Platkin states that aspects of her testimony were “exaggerated.” TD, at pg. 13. As the trier of fact, he is entitled to do this, and he did.
The recitation of facts and procedural history in the trial decision took up nearly seven pages of this 16.5 page decision; that is, nearly half of the decision. In doing this, the court was not looking for ways to invalidate the religion; rather, the court was trying to determine whether the Maetreum met its factual burden of proof under the statute.
I invite all of you to read both decisions so that you can see the facts which both these judges found important. For purposes of brevity, these are the facts which I found important.
Ms. Platkin uncovered the religion, a Mother Goddess tradition in 1999. Ms. Platkin was the spiritual head of the tradition, and there were seven priestesses, of whom lived full time on the property. There was a novice priestess, and she lived there full time. To be a priestess required training, and a lifetime commitment. By the time of trial, two other persons were living there: a woman who was a charity case and a Nepalese transsexual who, but for the Maetreum, would have had to return to Nepal.
The other priestesses, who did not live there full time had dedicated bedrooms for their use when they visited. The priestesses all had dedicated sacred space in their bedrooms.
Rituals were held in the main room of the house and on that portion of the ground which was designated as a temple. The outdoor temple was 500 feet in size, and outdoor rituals were held on other parts of the property, as well. There was a monthly Pagan brunch, café hours for the local community during which the local community was invited to drop in, a bi-sexual brunch, and a feminist hook-up. Pagan events were held on the weekends. Rituals were a daily occurrence. There was a lack of a congregation. The priestesses were the only adherents of the religion, and the Pagan events held on the property were populated by this same group of people.
Platine used the caretaker cottage to conduct the Maetreum’s affairs. She, herself, was available for counseling 24 hours a day and when performing counseling, she used the main house.
The treasurer of the Maetreum lived there and commuted to her full-time job in Albany. She was the Battakes-in-Waiting.
Ms. Platkin, the treasurer, and the novice lived on the property full time. The other five priestesses did not.
The property here was comprised of three acres on which sat a twelve-bedroom house, a cottage, and some outbuildings. It was originally purchased in 2002 by Platine and three other women in order to provide affordable housing for transsexual persons. A charitable corporation was established in this regard, but one of the women who had ownership interest in the property was not a Cybeline. That woman sold her interest to a Cybeline adherent in 2004 and in 2005, the Maetreum purchased the property.
On July 27, 2005, the Maetreum filed its certificate of incorporation as a religious/charitable corporation with the Greene County clerk. The certificate stated, in pertinent part:
The specific purpose for which the corporation is initially organized is to form a body of believers to celebrate the life and connection to Cybele, Magna Mater, to license, ordain, and oversee priestesses of Cybele to conduct the work of the Cybeline faith, and to also engage in activities which are necessary, suitable, or convenient to the accomplishment of that purpose or which are incidental thereto or connected therewith, are consistent with Section 501-3-C of the Internal Revenue Code . . . The purposes for which this corporation is organized are exclusively charitable, scientific, literary, and educational.
By this time, the property had been dedicated to religious use and aspects of the Maetreum, which continued to include charitable outreach and housing.
In 2006, the town listed the property as exempt on its tax rolls. In 2007 and 2008, the Maetreum sought exemptions, but these were denied. The denials were not challenged.
Between 2009-2011, several women were sheltered at the main house. The property was maintained through charitable donations, most of which came from the priestesses.
My math tells me that out of seven priestesses and one novice, three of the clergy were living at the property on a full time basis. The other five visited and had assigned bedrooms. This makes for eight people. There were two charitable cases also living there, which makes ten bedrooms. This leaves two bedrooms unaccounted for.
The court looked at all this and decided that when set upon 3 acres, a three-story, twelve-bedroom house which housed priestesses and their guests where the living room was used for rituals and where 500 square feet of outside space was used as a temple, this was merely a de minimus use of the property for religious purposes. The main purpose of all this property was to provide a residence for the priestesses. The everyday business of living prevailed here. The court also noted that people prayed, meditated, and conducted spiritual activities in their bedrooms all the time.
The Maetreum asserted the case of Sephardic Congregation of S. Monsey v. Town of Ramapo, 47 A.D.3d 915 (2nd Dept. 2008) as controlling, but Judge Platkin distinguished Sephardic on the facts: primarily the presence of a Jewish congregation to whom the Rabbi in that case ministered. Here, there was no congregation. Also, one third of the property in Sephardic was exclusively for serving the religious needs of an external congregation. The Rabbi spent 40-50 hours per week in the pursuit of his religious duties. Judge Platkin specifically stated that no such similar testimony was adduced at trial in the Maetreum matter. Furthermore, he also found Platine’s testimony regarding her counseling duties to be “exaggerated,” especially in light of the “limited number of individuals involved . . . .” TD, at pg. 13.
When asked to compare the Maetreum to a convent, Judge Platkin remained similarly unconvinced. TD, at pgs. 13-14.
What I do not see in the facts put forth by the trial judge is a list of the exhibits, what they showed, and whether there was any evidence adduced regarding other religious properties in the county who had tax exemptions and what was going on at those properties. Arguably, if there was another large acreage with a large house with many bedrooms that served an external congregation and a clergy that worked at least a regular work week of hours in service to that congregation, the outcome here might have been different.
In reading this case, I found the lack of an external congregation, the number of bedrooms which were mostly vacant (out of 12, only three were used by clergy for full time housing and two were used by non-clergy), the lack of square footage on this large property dedicated to religious pursuits, and the lack of credulity attached by Judge Platine to the Maetreum’s main witness to be controlling.
And in conclusion
Some of this appears to be mathematical. Judge Platkin obviously wanted to see a certain percentage of the house dedicated to religious use (and probably at a square footage that was greater than the square footage used for everyday living); and he was unimpressed by the lack of an external congregation (there was nothing in the decision about the numbers of people who were not clergy who came to the property, how often they came, what they came for, and the percentage of the property that they used while there.) At least one aspect of this was not mathematical: Judge Platkin found that the Maetreum’s main witness lacked credibility. This he was entitled to do.
Is this, as some claim, a case of deep discrimination? On its face, it does not appear to be so. It appears to be a stand-up analysis of facts presented at trial. Were these all the facts presented at trial? One would have to review all the exhibits accepted into evidence and read the transcript of all the testimony in order to be sure.
Will this case be appealed? That is yet to be seen. What will the fate of the Maetreum be if it is appealed? Appellate courts do not like to second-guess the fact finding entity (whether it be a judge or a jury) on appeal. The appellate court will be entitled to review the entire record, however, and not just the facts which Judge Platkin found to be determinative. This fight may not be over.