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Property taxes prompt church lawsuit

A Milwaukee church is suing the city to avoid paying more than $10,000 in property taxes.

Jerusalem Empowered African Methodist Episcopal Church filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Milwaukee County Circuit Court, claiming the church, under the Constitution, should be exempt from paying taxes on the 4.4 acres it owns at 9450 W. Good Hope Road.

According to state law, any real property owned by a church is exempt from property taxes when the land is necessary for convenience or buildings on the property.

But the city is trying to force the church to pay taxes on 2.2 acres of the property, said Rick Esenberg, founder, president and general counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Liberty and Law, which is the nonprofit organization representing the church.

Mary Reavey, the commissioner for the assessor’s office, said Thursday she had not seen the lawsuit and declined to comment further.

Assistant City Attorney Christine Quinn did not immediately respond to calls for comment.

In 2009, Esenberg said, the church received a notice that it owed property taxes because it never filed an exemption form with the assessor’s office. The church, he said, appealed those taxes, and the city determined the church would be exempt that year.

In 2010, Esenberg said, the assessor’s office sent another letter to the church explaining it would have to pay property taxes for the 2.2 acres because that land wasn’t being used for church activities.

However, according to the lawsuit, that land is used for outdoor worship, bible school, fundraisers, bible studies and awareness programs.

“I think the problem is with how the city is handling taxing the church,” Esenberg said. “The city is making an overaggressive and legally problematic determination in deciding what space the church needs and doesn’t need.”

The city’s decision to tax, he said, is questionable because the King of Kings Lutheran Church, which owned the property before Jerusalem Empowered, was exempt from paying property taxes.

By forcing Jerusalem Empowered to pay property taxes, according to the lawsuit, the city is violating the 14th Amendment’s requirement for equal protection.

But, according to state law, the church first must pay the property tax before challenging it, Esenberg said. He said the church couldn’t afford to pay those taxes, which is why it has filed suit.

The lawsuit asks the court to rule it unconstitutional to force the church to pay the property taxes before appealing the lawsuit. It also asks the court to find the entire church property exempt from taxation and to prohibit the city from collecting any tax levied against the property in tax years 2010, 2011 and in the future.

The city has 45 days to respond, which Esenberg said should give the assessor’s office another opportunity to waive the property taxes.

“This might turn out to be a real issue,” he said, “but maybe the city won’t want to proceed and decide not to take this to court.”

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