Judge: Town's treatment of pagans may be discrimination

A judge has found that a group of self-described witches may have gotten special treatment from the town of Catskill – and not in a good way.

In a strongly-worded decision issued on Tuesday, Judge George J. Pulver, Jr. of the Greene County Supreme Court ruled that the town's denial of a property tax exemption for the Maetreum of Cybele smacks of discrimination.

“Consistent with [the Matreum's] claim that it is being discriminated against, respondents' counsel attempts to hold petitioner to a higher standard than other religious organizations,” Pulver wrote in the decision, a copy of which was obtained by the Watershed Post.

Denying the town's request that he dismiss the case, Pulver wrote that Catskill, through its attorney, made “vague” and “subjective” arguments about the religious practices of the Maetreum in an attempt to justify its decision.

Pulver also ordered Greene County to refrain from foreclosing on the Maetreum's Palenville property until the completion of the lawsuit. The county, which contends that the Maetreum owes $13,835 in unpaid property taxes, sent the group a warning letter about foreclosure last month.

The decision is the biggest victory for the pagans in their years-long battle with Catskill over whether or not they are exempt from property taxes as a religious group.

In 2007, the town's lawyer, Daniel G. Vincelette, advised the town not to grant the group a tax exemption for the Palenville property, which the Maetreum uses as a convent to house several priestesses. Ever since, despite the Maetreum's protests and its status as religious group under state and federal law, Catskill has stuck to its decision. In 2009, the Maetreum filed this lawsuit in the state Supreme Court accusing the town of religious discrimination.

In his most recent argument to the Supreme Court, Vincelette wrote that because religious activity at the Maetreum was limited to “occasional events,” the use of the property was not religious.

Pulver's decision demolished that reasoning.

Vincelette attempted to “strip [the Maetreum] of its religious status … without bothering to set forth any personal expertise or objective basis for his conclusion,” the judge wrote.

The argument that religious events at the Maetreum are too infrequent “has no basis,” he wrote, and is a “subjective standard” that “is so vague that it would wreak havoc if it were generally applied to religious organizations in Greene County.”

The argument seems to be tailor-made to fit the Maetreum, Pulver wrote.

“That [Vincelette's] standards are directed at [the Maetreum] alone and will never be applied to other churches and charitable organizations seems inescapable."

Pulver also criticized Vincelette for mischaracterizing evidence against the Maetreum, including the affidavit of a disaffected ex-resident, which the judge called “misleading.” (That same ex-resident, Pulver noted, allegedly threatened to cut the throat of another resident.)

Although the 14-page decision slams the town of Catskill, the ruling is not an outright victory for the Maetreum. Pulver declined to order the town to grant the Maetreum a tax exemption, writing that the Maetreum had not proven that it deserved one.

2/28/11 Update: This story has been corrected. I initially wrote in several places that Judge Pulver had ordered the case to go to trial, when in fact the issue will remain before him and not go to a jury. (See comments below.) My apologies for the error.

3/2/11 Update: Read the full decision below:

Maetreum of Cybele Summary Judgment Decision

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Comments

Motion to dismiss

As the above commenter points correctly surmises, this decision was a motion to dismiss decision. The Town of Catskill has asked Judge Pulver to dismiss the case, and the Maetreum had cross-moved for summary judgment. Pulver denied both requests. My confusion about the next step in the case stems from the fact that Pulver's decision, which I will post on Scribd soon, does not clarify what happens next. (Not that court decisions usually do. Despite the fact that I've been a legal reporter for years, anon, I still find myself amazed and confused by the opacity of the process.)