Palenville’s pagans lose religious tax exemption case

The Maetreum of Cybele in Palenville. Photo by Julia Reischel. 

A group of self-described pagans in Palenville has lost its bid for a religious exemption from property taxes.

Last Thursday, a New York State Supreme Court judge issued a decision in the trial of a case filed by the Maetreum of Cybele against the town of Catskill. (You can read the decision below.) 

Catskill’s assessor has repeatedly denied requests by the group to take its property, a three-story former inn on a three-acre parcel in Palenville, off the tax rolls. (For an in-depth look at the controversy behind the lawsuit, see our 2010 feature story, "The Pagan Exemption.")

The Maetreum, led by Reverend Mother Battakes Cathryn Platine, argued that the property is the worldwide religious headquarters of the Cybeline Revival, a pagan faith. The town of Catskill contends that the property is mainly used for non-religious residential purposes.

In his ruling, Judge Richard M. Platkin sided squarely with the town of Catskill.

Platine wrote to the Watershed Post with her reaction.

“The judge ruled against our exemptions while upholding our legitimacy as a religion,” she wrote. “I am devastated … Despite Catskill granting full exemption to over a dozen parsonages and even a Catholic picnic ground, they ruled against us.”

Daniel Vincelette, the lawyer who represented the town of Catskill (and who took some heat from another judge about his tactics in the case), said that the town officials were pleased.

“We think the judge heard all the evidence,” he said. “The Maetreum had their opportunity to put all the witnesses they wanted before the judge. They put in all the the documents they want to … Now the ball's in their court.”

"Non-religious purposes"

After considering evidence from two days of trial from last fall, Platkin ruled that the Maetreum does not qualify for a religious tax exemption because it is primarily used for non-religious purposes: namely, housing Platine and several others.

"[T]he 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," Platkin wrote.

The judge wrote that the property’s temple area, where regular rituals were held, made up only a small part of the entire parcel. He wrote that the rest of the 12-room former inn is used as living quarters for the religion’s members, only three of whom live there full-time.

Platkin also dismissed the Matreum's argument that it deserved a tax exemption on non-religious grounds because it offers free emergency housing to women and transgendered women. The house's use as an emergency shelter is too "limited and infrequent" to qualify on charitable grounds, the judge wrote. 

Platine's charitable activities have been ongoing and extensive, Platine tells the Watershed Post. The Maetreum helped one woman win political asylum from Nepal and has given her free housing for six months, she wrote. Two others also receive free housing from the group. 

"The charitable housing we do is legal grounds by itself under NY law for full property exemption," she wrote.

But Judge Platkin found some of Platine's testimony to be suspect. He wrote that aspects of her testimony about her religious work appeared to be “exaggerated.”

The judge was careful to respect the authenticity of the Cybeline Revival as a religion: "The Court has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the religious and spiritual beliefs of the adherents of the Cybeline Revival,” he wrote.

Foreclosure looms

Vincelette, Catskill's lawyer, said that now that the case has ended, it’s possible that Greene County will foreclose on the Maetreum to recoup several years of unpaid taxes. He stressed that only the county, not the town of Catskill, can foreclose on the property. (This isn't the first time the pagans have worried about foreclosure.)

The Maetreum will appeal the decision and ask for foreclosure protection, Platine wrote.

The Maetreum’s case has gotten attention from across the country. The New York Times has written about it, as have several pagan blogs who view the case as an example of descrimination against non-mainstream religions. 

But Vincelette says that he does not expect much protest from pro-pagan groups now that a judge has carefully analyzed the evidence. 

“I do this all over New York State," he said. "The reaction is the reaction. You get the decision. That's the law. That's what you have to abide by.”

Read the decision in this case below: 

8/9/12 correction: The first version of this story erroneously reported that the town of Catskill could foreclose on the Maetreum's property. Only Greene County, not the town of Catskill, has the power to foreclose on the property. I regret the error.  -- Julia Reischel

Matreum v Catskill Decision