MIAMI, FLORIDA — The oldest church in Miami has been hit with a mega tax bill by the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser, which determined that the church leased a portion of its grounds to food trucks and a for-profit school — a violation of its religious exemption status, the Miami Herald reports.
The church, located at 609 Brickell Ave., has run a K-8 religious school on the property since 2008. The bill comprises a tax lien totaling $6.5 million (including interest and fines) for the years 2009-2017 and a current bill of $509,526.24 for the 2018 year.
The taxes only apply to the portions of the property deemed to be in violation of the exemption, between 29-35 percent, depending on the year.
Attorneys for the First Presbyterian Church of Miami argued last month that the school operating on church grounds was “motivated by the church’s sincere religious beliefs” and demanded that a jury trial be held to determine if the entire church property falls under the exemption.
“By partially revoking the Property’s tax exempt status and seeking to collect the tax allegedly owed for 2018, the Defendants have acted in an arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory manner and thereby denied the Church equal protection under the law in violation of the Church’s constitutional rights,” the church’s lawsuit states.
But as the Miami Herald points out, legal experts don’t think the church’s defense will hold up.
“What’s happening to this church is the ultimate nightmare scenario,” said Franklin Zemel, a partner at the Fort Lauderdale office of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr. “I don’t see this as religious discrimination. I don’t see anything that suggests the county is acting in a mean or arbitrary way. To me, it sounds like you’ve got a church that is leasing out a school, they’re making money and not paying what they owe.”
According to Florida Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the Property Appraiser can’t currently collect the tax lien levied on the church.
“As long as the church doesn’t sell the property, the lien just sits there and accrues interest,” he said.
The church is required to pay the current 2018 tax bill of $509,526. A payment of $16,131.72 has reportedly been filed to the Tax Collector while the case proceeds.
The First Presbyterian Church of Miami was founded in 1896.
Speaking to the Herald, church pastor Christopher Atwood said that the school, in which is teaches chapel class and his daughter is a student, is an integral part of the church’s mission.
“The property appraiser is doing their job and we are doing ours,” he said. “The rest is in the hands of God.”