Courts Say Watchtower Society ‘Exclusively Religious’
FOUR New York court decisions have again clearly established that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is ‘exclusively religious’ and thereby not subject to real-estate tax on its property which is used for its religious purposes.
On July 11, 1974, the New York State Court of Appeals, by a unanimous (5-0) decision affirmed the decisions of the lower courts that the Society’s Brooklyn and Queens properties be removed from the real-estate tax rolls of New York city. In its opinion, written by Associate Judge Hugh Jones, the Court of Appeals declared that the Society “is organized and conducted exclusively for religious purposes.”
One week later, on July 18, Justice D. C. Pitt of the State of New York Supreme Court, Ulster County, made a similar ruling. He declared that the Wallkill Central School District could not levy real-property taxes against the Society’s farms and printing facilities located about 100 miles north of New York city. “It is clear,” said the Justice, echoing the State’s higher court, “that the activities of the petitioner [the Watchtower Society] must be termed religious in nature.”
In past decades similar decisions have been made by the courts. Why then was it necessary for the matter to come up again? And, why in the New York city case, was it necessary to go all the way to the State’s highest tribunal, the State Court of Appeals?
Cause of the Court Action
Essentially because of the enabling legislation of New York State in 1971. The State’s Real Property Tax Law was amended to grant authority to local municipalities to terminate the tax exemption previously enjoyed by the properties of certain not-for-profit organizations. It provided that property owned by a corporation or association which is exclusively religious should be continued exempt. Property of corporations or associations engaging exclusively in “bible, tract, benevolent, missionary” and similar endeavors could be taxed if the local government so chose.
Accordingly, in June of the same year, the New York City Council amended the tax law of the City to limit real-estate tax exemptions. On November 1 the City Tax Commission informed the Watchtower Society that its properties would be restored to the tax rolls January 1, 1972. The Tax Commission of the City of New York thereby contended that the Society is not exclusively religious and that its New York city properties are not used for religious purposes.
The Society challenged this action as arbitrary and undertook the time-consuming efforts to correct the wrong on the administrative level. A thorough memorandum setting out the nature of the Society as exclusively religious was issued by the Society. Proceedings were had before the Tax Commission. But administrative relief was not granted, and so the Society took the City to court.
First, the Supreme Court of the State of New York, County of New York, ruled that the City was wrong; the Society’s property did not belong on the tax rolls. The City appealed the case to the Appellate Division; the City lost again. However, the Tax Commission was allowed to appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals. And there, for the third time, the City was defeated. Judge Jones correctly noted: “The particular words used in its corporate name [that is, Watchtower Bible and Tract Society] do not foreclose inquiry beyond them as to the purposes for which the Society was organized and is conducted. It was organized as a membership corporation for religious purposes.”
The City could appeal no farther. They were ordered to repay all the tax money taken from the Society along with interest and costs.
Upstate, Justice Pitt’s decision regarding Watchtower Farms was in agreement with the action of the Court of Appeals. This case, too, had been in litigation for some time. The Wallkill Central School District did not immediately appeal to the higher court and as of this writing has not done so.
Wisdom of the Decisions
Of course, to those familiar with the work of Jehovah’s witnesses, these decisions came as no surprise. They knew that the work of the Witnesses is religious.
Almost two million of them meet regularly in their Kingdom Halls all over the earth. There they carefully study the Bible and the latest in Biblical scholarship and learn how the Bible’s principles can be put to work in their lives. Emphasis is put on ‘the form of religion that is clean and undefiled’ and pleasing to God.—Jas. 1:27.
Observant people know, too, that the Witnesses in more than 200 lands enjoy visiting others and explaining to them the good things they have learned from the Bible. But since today many people are very busy, the Witnesses leave millions of pieces of literature, books and magazines for householders to read at their convenience. The printed message, really no more than an extension of oral preaching, similarly encourages good morality, honesty as well as optimism toward the future. All this work is religious.
That it is religious has been recognized by the Supreme Court of the United States. One of its decisions, Murdock vs. Pennsylvania, was cited by the New York Court of Appeals in its recent rendering:
“The hand distribution of religious tracts is an age-old form of missionary evangelism—as old as the history of printing presses . . . This form of religious activity occupies the same high estate under the First Amendment as do worship in the churches and preaching from the pulpits. It has the same claim to protection as the more orthodox and conventional exercises of religion.”
But where do the Witnesses get the “religious tracts” with which they carry on their activity and which are used at their Kingdom Hall meetings? In the United States most of these have been provided by the Brooklyn and Wallkill establishments. There, ministers who are scholars, writers, printers, engineers and those with dozens of other specialized abilities work as volunteers to produce religious literature. They receive room and board provided by the Society which maintains facilities to produce and serve the food economically. There is a laundry and housekeeping staff to care for living quarters. All this work is of one nature only—religious.
The studying of Bible literature at Kingdom Halls, as we have seen, constitutes religious activity. Leaving it in the homes of others is religious service. Then, would not the production of it by volunteers also be a religious activity? The courts again have answered, Yes!
These wise decisions, however, only legally confirm what is readily discerned by honest people everywhere: The Watchtower Society is ‘exclusively religious.’