City revokes tax exemption after FFRF protests

The owners of the “San Damiano Friary” in Monona, Wis., are now required to pay taxes on the expensive waterfront property.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is celebrating a victory for taxpayers near its home.

The city of Monona (adjacent to FFRF’s headquarters in Madison, Wis.) had incorrectly classified a nearly 10-acre property on Lake Monona as being exempt from property taxes. Even though the property is generally referred to as the “San Damiano Friary,” it reportedly hadn’t been used for tax-exempt purposes since at least 2015. FFRF had protested this misclassification in December.

“Property that is exempt under Wis. Stat. § 70.11(4) must actually be used by the entity seeking an exemption,” FFRF Senior Counsel Patrick Elliott had written to Monona City Administrator Bryan Gadow and the official appraisers. “It is not enough for a religious organization to own the property, it must be ‘used exclusively’ by the organization.”

Wisconsin case law backed FFRF’s argument. In Dominican Nuns v. City of La Crosse, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals ruled that a church property that was being maintained but had been vacated by a religious order was taxable. Any claim to an exemption by the owner here was even worse than in the Dominican Nuns case, since the property was reportedly being rented to tenants, FFRF had added.

The city of Monona seems to have come around to FFRF’s perspective. The latest documents from the city’s assessing agency show that it is being appraised at just under $4 million, and the property owners could end up paying more than $80,000 in taxes annually.

“We’re glad we were able to help end yet another case of religious privilege,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Monona residents will no longer have to compensate for this entity not paying its taxes.”