Way of the Cross

A ruling by a state appellate court Thursday upheld a lower court ruling that the Downtown Madison property that formerly held St. Raphael's Cathedral is not exempt from property taxes.

THE CAPITAL TIMES ARCHIVES

A Downtown Madison Catholic parish doesn’t qualify for a property tax exemption on land where it intends to rebuild a cathedral, a state appeals court ruled Thursday. But a provision quietly tucked into the state budget will soon change that.

The three-judge panel affirmed a 2016 ruling by Dane County Circuit Judge Rhonda Lanford that the property failed to meet a requirement for religiously exempt land to be “necessary for (the) location and convenience of buildings” since an arson fire destroyed St. Raphael’s Cathedral in 2005.

St. Raphael’s Congregation, which owns the 1.3-acre plot at 204 W. Main St., sued the city of Madison, challenging its 2014 property tax. The congregation argued the land still served a religious purpose — another requirement for exemption — after it constructed a Way of the Cross path, which lays out 14 stations commemorating key events of the day of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Although the Way of the Cross may further the congregation’s religious purpose, merely intending to rebuild a cathedral doesn’t meet the “location and convenience of buildings” requirement, appellate Judge Paul Lundsten wrote in the court’s opinion.

“The absence of a cathedral on the property during the 2014 tax year is fatal to the Congregation’s quest for a tax exemption for that year,” the opinion said.

Beginning next year, however, a new state law will allow the land to be exempt from property taxes for more than 10 years.

For property assessments beginning Jan. 1, religious organizations that intend to reconstruct a building “destroyed by fire, natural disaster or criminal act, regardless of whether preconstruction, planning or construction has begun” can remove their property from the tax rolls for 25 years after a building is destroyed.

The provision, which was anonymously sponsored, was put into the 2018-19 state budget.

“Effectively, the (state) Legislature passed a law, especially for St. Raphael’s, to make it tax exempt even though the courts say that isn’t what they’re entitled to under existing law,” said Madison City Attorney Michael May.

The congregation also sued the city to recover its property taxes paid in 2013, but a judge ruled a religious exemption had not been filed in time.

In 2014, after filing a timely exemption that the city denied, the property was assessed at just more than $4 million, which resulted in a $98,480 tax bill.

The Catholic Diocese of Madison announced plans in 2007 to rebuild the cathedral, estimated at $50 million, but the congregation was able to raise only less than $3 million before it suspended fundraising efforts, according to the appeals court opinion.

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Logan Wroge has been a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal since 2015.