Motions to rehear filed in religious exemption property tax case

By Karen Kidd | Mar 10, 2016

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TALLAHASSEE — Defendants in a lawsuit over religious exemption to property taxes levied against a faith-based organization for property it once owned in Santa Rosa County are asking that the case be reheard, the plaintiff's attorney has confirmed.

Panama City attorney Douglas L. Smith, representing the plaintiffs in Genesis Ministries, Inc. vs Brown, said in an email to the Florida Record that he is preparing to respond to two defendants' motions that the case be reheard.

The motions come only a few weeks after a Florida state appeals court reversed the trial court’s decision to dismiss Genesis Ministries' challenge to taxes imposed on property it formerly owned in Santa Rosa County. Genesis Ministries claims the taxes were imposed after an appraiser allegedly revoked its religious exemption.

"Keep the faith," Smith said. "The case was about right versus wrong, but the case is not over yet."

Genesis Ministries owned and operated a school and church on the property from about 2005 through February 2013 with a religious exemption from ad valorem taxes until 2012, according to court records. That changed on Feb. 26, 2013, when a property appraiser for Santa Rosa County recorded a notice of a tax lien, claiming Genesis Ministries was not eligible for the religious exemption and owed almost $298,000 in back taxes, the records say.

Genesis Ministries received a letter dated Nov. 15, 2013, from an attorney representing the property appraiser stating Genesis has not been entitled to the religious exemption since 2004 and that this determination "will not be changed," the records state.

Genesis Ministries sold the property the following year and sent the tax collector for Santa Rosa County a check for approximately $352,000 to pay the 2013 taxes and the alleged back tax amount. "The letter accompanying the check stated that the payment was being made 'under protest' and that ‘[a] lawsuit will be forthcoming seeking a full refund,’" court records say.

Genesis Ministries filed its initial complaint on Sept. 9, 2014, in Florida's First Judicial Circuit Court in Santa Rosa County against the property appraiser, tax collector, and the executive director of the Department of Revenue, seeking a refund. In addition to being denied a religious exemption to which Genesis Ministries claimed to be entitled, the complaint alleged the property appraiser violated tax laws when he "back-assessed the Property for 2005 through 2012 by filing the Tax Lien." These actions, the complaint alleged, also violated equal protection, establishment, and free exercise clauses in the state and federal constitutions, as well as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, chapter 761, of Florida's statutes.

The trial court later granted a defense motion to dismiss the case because the complaint was filed more than 60 days after the tax lien was recorded. Genesis Ministries appealed, stating the trial court was mistaken in its finding. The U.S. District Court of Appeals agreed, handing down its opinion filed Feb. 16.

Smith said he is unaware whether this case is being watched by other faith-based organizations.

"The focus on the case was not the faith-based nature of the owner, but rather the improper procedures of the property appraiser, as well as the effort by him to impose a 60-day statute of limitations, which was not correct under Florida law," Smith said.

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