Thanks to Martha Shanahan at the Keene Sentinel for her front page feature piece focusing on the Shire Free Church’s appeal of the City of Keene’s denial of tax exempt status for our Keene parsonage. Stay tuned here to Free Keene for the latest on this case. Here’s the Sentinel story, for which city attorney Thom Mullins refused to comment:
Members of a local activist group have appealed a city board’s rejection of their application for tax-exempt status on a Keene duplex.
Jay Denonville, Mark Edgington, Ian B. Freeman and Darryl W. Perry, who identify themselves in the appeal as ministers of the Shire Free Church: Monadnock, say the city’s Board of Assessors should reverse its June decision and allow the group to claim tax-exempt status on the property as the parsonage of a religious organization. The appeal was filed Aug. 28 in Cheshire County Superior Court.
Freeman and Perry, both members of the loosely organized group of bloggers known as Free Keene, filed the application for tax-exempt status at the group’s Leverett Street property in March.
Freeman told The Sentinel he co-founded the Shire Free Church, which has branches and ministers in other parts of New Hampshire and outside of the state, in 2010.
Its ministers are ordained by the California-based Universal Life Church, which offers ordination to anyone who applies and without following the processes required by most religions. The church members conduct many of their activities in a duplex at 73-75 Leverett St. in Keene, Freeman said. Three people — described by Freeman as two ministers and a janitor — live in the house, which Freeman owned until it was transferred to Shire Free Church Holdings LLC last year.
The annual taxes on the Leverett Street property are about $6,000, Freeman told The Sentinel in April. The land, including the building, is valued at almost $180,000, according to city records.
Many of its members and ministers are also associated with Free Keene and protest liberty-related issues such as seat belt and helmet laws, drug possession and parking ticket fines.
Some people associated with Free Keene, calling themselves “Robin Hood of Keene,” have been involved in a legal dispute with the city over its parking enforcement officers.
The Robin Hooders fill expired parking meters before city parking enforcement officers can write tickets for violations. The city took legal action in Cheshire County Superior Court against the group in May 2013, accusing six people, including Freeman, of harassing and intimidating the officers while they performed their enforcement duties.
Judge John C. Kissinger Jr. dismissed the city’s complaint in December, citing First Amendment rights, and city officials have appealed that decision to the N.H. Supreme Court.
The appeal by the Shire Free Church: Monadnock could bring the city into another Superior Court case involving Freeman and members of the Free Keene group.
The city’s Board of Assesors unanimously voted to deny the church’s application for tax-free status at a June meeting attended by dozens of Free Keene members and other affiliated activists. At the meeting, City Assessor Daniel Langille said the church did not meet the basic qualifications for a tax-exempt organization because it couldn’t prove it’s primarily a religious organization.
The church’s four-member board of directors — Edgington, Denonville, Freeman and Perry — had a choice to appeal the decision to either the N.H. Board of Tax and Land Appeals or Cheshire County Superior Court.
Freeman said the board decided to file the appeal in court because its members were more optimistic that it would overturn the Board of Assessors’ ruling.
“With the court system, you’re going to get more of a fair shake — the judge has more independence than the Board of Tax and Land appeals,” he said.
In their appeal, the church board members allege that Mary Ann Robator, one of three members of the Board of Assessors, used discriminatory language against the church in her explanation for why the board was denying the request for tax-free status.
At the June meeting, Robator told the applicants that the church members’ political views defined the group more than their religious convictions.
“When they’re referred to as activists, I think that flies in the face of your church status; a political stance is something that cannot be defined in that regard,” she said.
In their appeal, the four ministers of the church say the board’s denial of their application was discriminatory. The board, they said, does not have the right to decide what constitutes a valid religious belief.
“There’s no definition of what a church is legally, so how they decided … I don’t know,” Freeman said. “It’s a pretty clear issue of religious freedom.”
City officials have 30 days to respond to the appeal, after which they can file a motion in court to either dismiss the appeal or ask for a summary judgment from a judge.
City Attorney Thomas P. Mullins declined to comment for this report.