Is San Francisco Punishing Catholic Church for Prop 8?

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Jan 19, 2009

Arguing that property transfers among various Catholic organizations amounts to a substantial tax-generating array of business transactions, the city of San Francisco has moved to collect $15 million from the church--while onlookers declare that the tab is "retaliation" for the church's support of Proposition 8.

The Archdiocese of San Francisco has contested the tax, saying that similar internal transfers of assets have not resulted in other denominations being taxed.

The assessor's office received a letter from an attorney for the Archdiocese, Jack Hammel, according to a Jan. 14 article published in the San Francisco Chronicle.

The letter read in part, "The city has applied the law in an uneven fashion (e.g. We are aware of non-Archdiocesan, non-Catholic charities which have transferred property to other charities and no transfer tax has been levied)."

But the city's assessor-recorder responded that the case received a thorough review beforehand to ensure that the church would not be treated unfairly.

Said city assessor Phil Ting, "Because we knew the accusations could be out there [that we were treated the church unfairly], we worked to look at every single document so we could totally and completely understand their argument."

Ting went on, "We looked at all the various exemptions that could have been applied, and we felt that none of them were applicable in this case.

"That meant it was our determination that this was a taxable event."

The article said that the total bill for the transfers, which involved 232 properties changing hands between various organizations, could range from as low as $3 million to as high as $15 million--half the total that was charged in taxes in 2007 when ten properties in the heart of the city were sold off.

Though the current tax claim by the city does not involve any property being bought or sold, the fact that different business entities are coming to acquire land and buildings makes the transactions liable to the transfer tax, according to Ting.

Religious-right Web site claimed in an article titled "San Francisco Set to Tax Catholic Church Millions in Suspected Prop 8 Retaliation" that, "Many are decrying the move as retaliation for the church's support of California's same-sex 'marriage' ban," the controversial amendment to the state constitution known as Proposition 8, which eradicated the existing right of marriage for gay and lesbian families when voters narrowly approved the measure in November.

The San Francisco Chronicle did not mention Prop. 8, but article quoted California's Campaign of Children and Families' Randy Thomassen as saying, "This is fishy at the least and evil at the most."

Added Thomassen, "Phil Ting is doing to the Catholic Church what has not been done in other venues, taking away the Church's tax-exempt status in regards to property."

The article noted that Prop. 8 opponents had questioned the legality of the Mormon and Catholic churches interjecting themselves to such a large degree into the ballot initiative campaign that unfolded prior to the rescinding of marriage equality via popular vote.

Following voter approval of the repeal of marriage rights, there was a call from some quarters for the churches to lose their tax-exempt status, noted

Thomassen suggested that for Ting, the issue may have been personal, saying that the city assessor "went head to head with the Catholic church over marriage between a man and a woman," and saying that Ting was now "aiming his rifles... right at the Catholic Church," the article said.

A Catholic blogger made a similar suggestion.

The article also quoted Jack Smith, blogger for Catholic Key, as saying, "Any clear-eyed observer might view this action by Ting, who's rumored to want the Mayor's chair after [Gavin] Newsom, as pandering to the anti-Catholic sentiment of voters in San Francisco."

However, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Ting had characterized the tax bill as in keeping with the program of corporate taxation that he had stewarded during his three years as city assessor.

Ting called the tax bill "an affirmation of the work we had already started doing and will continue to do to make sure every taxpayer is treated fairly."

To the church, however, the shuffling of properties is simply part and parcel of a reorganization effort.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Maurice Healy, said that Ting had "taken a step that is unprecedented in the history of the state of California.

"He has determined that an internal reorganization of church property, within the family of corporations of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, constitutes a 'sale' and is subject to a property transfer tax."

Added Healy, "The law is overwhelmingly in favor of the archdiocese in holding that church property transfers of this nature are exempt from transfer taxes" because all of the property involved ultimately belongs to the archdiocese.

But Ting's office has determined that this is not, in fact the case.

Said the city assessor, "These are separate legal entities, and the reorganizations were not just a cosmetic, simple reorganization."

The issue is headed to a city review board, the Chronicle reported.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2009-01-19 18:38:44

    You left out the part that the properties are being transferred to three nonprofits. These are separate entities, with separate leaders and separate bylaws. More importantly, the properties owned by the smaller nonprofits are not owned by the Archbishop (as was previously the case). The church is therefore selling properties from the current owner, The Archbishop, to another owner. Since these are separate legal entities, this can not be considered a simple reorganization, and should therefore to be taxed as a sale.

  • , 2009-01-20 10:13:51

    Anon 18:38 makes an interesting point. It would be helpful to know if these transfers also triggered a re-evaluation by the County Assessor’s office under Prop 13. That would go a long way to ascertaining if this is a personal vendetta by a radical homosexual partisan or an actual dispute. Anon’s information is helpful, but inconclusive without knowing the nature of the new owners he cites. Also missing in this story is information about Ting himself. Without knowing the politics of the man, or even his sexual orientation, it is almost impossible to form a reasoned opinion as to his motive. The timing of this event is suspect, certainly, and inculcating a notion among the public that if you don’t’ give homosexuals their own way, they will use underhanded politics to retaliate goes a long way to creating new hostilities to the political identity that may turn around and bite us in the ass in future.

  • , 2009-01-20 12:43:45

    It should be noted that the reorganization referred to in the article involved transfer of properties in all of the three counties encompassed by the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Mr. Ting is the only one of the three county assessors who has found it necessary or appropriate to levy these taxes. It does cause one to wonder if there were other motivations operative that caused Mr. Ting to arrive at a decision so variant to that of his peers in the other two counties.

  • , 2009-01-21 12:03:58

    Many such transfers from the diocese to more disparate entities are to prevent them from being taken to satisfy court judgments against the diocese. In their zeal to control everything, 20th century Catholic Bishops forced parishes and other Church institutions to cede all of their properties to the dioceses. When the sexual abuse scandals came up, of course, this gave each diocese very deep pockets since they held the deed to each and every property. Now, the dioceses are seeking to disperse their assets to distinct corporations in order to reduce their ability to lose the assets. Such corporate shenanigans should be taxed! Furthermore, if the Church wishes for Caesar not to tax them, then they should refrain from telling Caesar whose marriages Caesar should recognize--- or even campaigning for who should be the next Caesar. They won’t--- because they want it both ways.

  • , 2009-01-21 12:21:46

    they love their tax-exempt status. the church was able to exploit that benefit to hide non-monetary contributions to prop 8. but is this retaliation? no. this is a city needing cash. this is a city that’ll put a ticket on your car before you have a chance to turn off the engine. this is San Francisco. related:

  • , 2009-01-21 15:24:44

    The Church believes in marriage only between and man and a woman because the sexual union of two men cannot produce children. Therefore, the union only benefits sexual pleasure and becomes a subjective act, not ordered to the objective of the highest order which is the Good, or God. As a chaste hetrosexual, believe me, union with Jesus Christ through prayer wins out everytime over sex. Try it.

  • , 2009-01-22 18:54:39

    Two men cannot produce children - that is true. But the Catholic Church marries heterosexuals who are past the age of reproduction, they allow for sex now for other than procreation and they allow for a child born from an unwed mother to be christened, so the same applies to children adopted by those same two men. Your bigotry is your cross to bear, but as a Catholic I can assure you that judgment is not yours or mine to offer. That is the blessing and the core of our faith. You should know that forgiveness and understanding are the only things you are afforded, and they are the true blessings learned from the compassionate words of Jesus Christ.

  • , 2009-01-25 04:06:13

    Chaste heterosexual my ass!

  • John Bisceglia, 2009-01-29 05:24:25

    I doubt gays will have equality until there is SUFFERING EQUALITY in the United States....i.e. - those who continue to vote suffering into our lives need to UNDERSTAND exactly what it feels like to: * Lose your child 1 day after your spouse dies. * Lose your home and all possessions after divorcing an abuser. * Lose your job/career due to federal inequality. * Lose your home due to federal inequality. Heterosexuals would be trying to KILL US if we were voting these kinds of harm and devastation into their families. We’re supposed to smile and say, "please?!" - The tide is turning. The Queer Community has barely begun to own its anger. EQUALITY TAX REVOLT - April 15, 2009

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