Church-owned housing measure has its first hearing

Lisa Demer

JUNEAU -- A measure that would wipe out some property tax breaks for church-owned housing got its first hearing Thursday before a state legislative committee but didn't advance.

Reps. Berta Gardner and Lindsey Holmes, both Democrats from Anchorage, told the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee that their proposal, House Bill 305, is a matter of fairness. They want to eliminate the special tax exemption for housing provided to religious teachers, because other teachers don't get similar breaks.

Gardner said her office had been flooded with comments in support of her bill -- more than she's ever gotten on any topic.

The financial impact would be small. The state assessor could find just 10 tax-exempt church houses for religious educators statewide -- five owned by the Anchorage Baptist Temple and five on the Kenai Peninsula owned by Alaska Christian College. A legislative researcher put the worth of the tax breaks for all those properties at less than $25,000 a year, though that's a rough figure since they haven't been assessed for property taxes for years.

The measure also would strip away language added to state law in 2006 that defined a minister as someone who is ordained, commissioned or licensed "according to standards of the religious organization." It would leave intact the exemption covering residences for bishops, pastors, priests, rabbis or ministers as long as they are "of a recognized religious organization" and the organization owned the property.

The Alaska Municipal League supports the bill on the grounds that municipalities, not the state, should decide what properties to exempt, executive director Kathie Wasserman told the committee.

No one testified against the bill but one committee member, Rep. Alan Dick, R-Stony River, expressed concerns.

"By default, the religion of the public schools is secular, humanistic, atheist," he asserted.

Actually, public schools are not supposed to support any religion or atheism but accommodate children of many beliefs.

Parents who choose religious schools may end up paying more in tuition if the property tax exemption is eliminated, Dick said.

Gardner noted that many public school teachers are deeply religious.

Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau and the committee chair, said she'll hold the bill for a second hearing, as is her practice.

Anchorage Daily News
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