Guest Post by Rev. Cathryn Platine
Palenville, NY, USA.
The town of Catskill, New York has waged an illegal five year battle against the Maetreum of Cybele for claiming its legal property tax exemption under the laws of the State of New York and United States.
It is a struggle for nothing less than the right of all religions in America to be treated equally under the law. You do not have to be a politically aware Pagan to understand the danger to us all when government becomes the arbiter of personal belief.
The Maetreum of Cybele is a revival of the ancient Goddess traditions that long pre-dated the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that dominate the religious landscape today. Originally founded as an organized religious group in 1999 by myself — a lifelong Pagan — and Susan Davis in Ohio, today the worldwide home of the Maetreum is nestled in the Catskill mountains, in the tiny Hamlet of Palenville, New York.
The home sits on about three acres of rural land in a Catskill landmark, the historic former Central House Resort Inn. In 2002, three Cybeline priestesses and a Catholic purchased the property for use as a woman's housing collective. The property also provided a place for newly transitioned women with a transsexed history to reposition their lives. Far too many women in their situation find it difficult to support themselves and often wind up homeless.
Establishing an outdoor Temple became a priority; within three months of buying the property and Cybeline adherents began religious services. The participants formed a non-profit corporation in the summer of 2002 to manage the property, updated in 2005 under New York Religious Incorporation Law as a religion. All four owners signed over all their legal interest to the property to the newly incorporated Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, Inc.
Under both Federal and New York state law no individual can profit in any manner from the property of a religious corporation so this meant this signing over of interest in the property forever barred any of us who investing in the property from ever having a return on that investment. No one has ever been employed by the Maetreum of Cybele and all our funds are separate from any individual. The flow of funds from our priestesses is totally one direction … to the Maetreum.
From that time forward the property was the official world wide home of the Cybeline revival and from day one the charitable housing continued as part of our religious mission. In the spring of 2006 the Maetreum applied for and was granted property tax exemption as a recognized church property. Later that year the Maetreum also applied for and eventually was granted official IRS 501 (c)(3) status specifically as a church and religious charitable organization. Women living at the property did so under the Rule of the Women of Cybele, a specific set of guidelines for living together as a religious community, that actually pre-dated formal incorporation by two years.
So the situation was this: the Maetreum of Cybele was legally incorporated, something the majority of Pagan faiths are not, and had legal and formal standing with the IRS as a legitimate church. This was based on a formal doctrine of faith and theology, an ongoing congregation of worshippers, and fully legal ownership of its own property. Women living at the property did so under a set of guidelines for living as a religious community of women, or were there as part of charitable housing of women who would have otherwise been homeless.
But this annoyed someone on the Board of Trustees of the Town of Catskill who then ordered the Town Assessor to deny our exemption for 2007. At that time, an attempted schism of our religion was opened by a group of transgender identified people who did not like the requirement of the religion that only fully female bodied and woman identified women could be elevate to the priestesshood. They had taken over the house and driven me out for a period of time. This was a religious schism: they continued to represent themselves as the Maetreum and continued religious services, but it failed and the original priestesses regained control of the property later that year.
Despite this, from that time forward the Town of Catskill refused to acknowledge the property tax exemption. In 2007 and 2008 I exhausted the appeals process short of filing a lawsuit. I could not find anyone who understood New York property law well enough to advise me on how to do so within the four days after the filing window closed for 2008. The filing period was very short: only thirty days. In 2009 the Maetreum again filed for exemption as it had the prior two years and once again was denied.
This time we filed legal action against the Town but were still unable to find a lawyer willing to help us do so. The court informed us that under New York law we could not represent ourselves because we were a corporation and granted us an extension to hire an attorney. That was when we discovered exactly how badly the opponents had stacked the deck.
Very few lawyers in New York will take on a tax case as it is considered a very difficult and esoteric part of New York law. We searched for months for an attorney.
The only one we could locate who actually knew that law — and willing to take our case — was barred by her law firm from doing so because they also represented the Town of Catskill in other tax matters. Eventually we found a young inexperienced social justice minded lawyer willing to take on the case.
The Maetreum of Cybele is funded only by contributions mainly made by its priestesses. We never have received outside grants to do our charitable works but funded our activities on our own. Even at a very reasonable rate, hiring a lawyer put a major crimp in our funding so we appealed to the greater Pagan community for help raising our legal fees.
We received a decent contribution from a Pagan woman in California that paid our initial legal retainer, but neither the American Civil Liberties Union (and its New York version, NYCLU) nor several Pagan legal groups could help beyond that point. So we had to get by with a trickle of funding from grass root Pagan efforts and our own internal funding to wage what had become a major legal battle.
Why is this important to anyone but the Maetreum? The Town of Catskill, from the start, refused to give a reason for denying our exemption other than a vague reference to property use. During the appeal hearing in 2009 they briefly switched tactics to claiming we were in violation of fire and safety codes and failed to apply for a "change of use" permit that actually was not added to the Town code until after we had first been granted exemption. Basically, the Town of Catskill was taking the position that they trumped both Federal and State law regarding our legitimacy as a religion because they did not approve of a bunch of Pagan women having equal standing under the law with Christian churches.
This is a pure First Amendment issue. Their attorney kept lying to the press saying this was not about our legitimacy as a religion but our land use stating we were nothing more than a housing cooperative but when it came time to actually file in court, the Town's pretrial filing was that we were a "sham" religion organized only to avoid taxes!
Our attorney suffered major health problems requiring us to hire another which, luckily, our original attorney had found for us. The Town of Catskill, knowing it did not have a legitimate case, pursued the tactic of ruining us financially by filing bogus motion after motion to keep the case from going to trial and forcing us to answer them at increasing cost to us. The Town of Catskill, by our educated estimates, has spent in excess of one quarter of a million dollars to keep us from having our exemption. In the meantime, they granted millions in tax breaks to big box stores, some demanded after the initial deals.
The Town raised their level of legal filings several times to keep the pressure on us. By the sworn testimony of one of the members of the Catskill Board of Review, we were singled out; from 2005 onward not a single non-profit had been denied exemption other than the Maetreum. Moreover, a review of the tax records showed church property after property was used as Parsonages (housing clergy only) and even a church owned picnic ground was declared fully exempt. They did this while denying our claim on the basis that several of our priestesses lived on the property!
We finally had our day(s) in court in the Fall of 2011. Up to that time we had paid in excess of US$20,000 dollars in legal fees; our current bill is an additional 12,000 that we owe right now. Trials are expensive in terms of legal fees and especially so when the opposition deliberately drags them out.
We almost certainly will win. We were told informally that we met our burden of proof in this case and had a preliminary decision the spring of 2011 that basically acknowledged we were being discriminated against. But this has left us completely broke, with almost all of our projects on hold (other than charitable housing). Right now three women are staying with us on a charitable housing basis — we have never stopped that mission.
If the willful and blatant discrimination we have suffered bothers you, know that we have always been mindful that this battle was bigger than just us. We are fighting for the rights of all minority religions to be treated equally under the law.
(This post was previously published today, January 26th 2012 at TS-Si.org)