Make Masons prove they shouldn't pay

Last modified: 2/10/2011 12:00:00 AM
Five state representatives including Concord Democrat Stephen Shurtleff, all Freemasons, want to exempt Masonic temples from property taxes, thus increasing taxes for everyone else. "The Masons do a lot for charity," Shurtleff told the Monitor's Ray Duckler. To that, we say, prove it.

No hard and fast rule exists to determine precisely how much charitable work an organization must do to prove that community service is its primary mission, so court battles are common.

Last month, the state Supreme Court ordered the state Board of Land and Tax Appeals to reconsider its decision to grant the Home Care Association of New Hampshire an exemption from Concord property taxes. To merit an exemption, Associate Justice Gary Hicks wrote, an organization's "charitable mission must be its dominant or primary purpose; if the dominant or primary purpose of its work is to its members or a limited class of persons, the organization will not meet this requirement, even if the public will derive an incidental benefit from such work."

Many fraternal organizations consider community service and charitable work to be part of their mission. The Freemasons support the Shriners' Hospitals for Children and members of the Ancient Arabic Order Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, otherwise known as Shriners, are all Masons. The group also grants scholarships and contributes to efforts to medical research. The Concord lodge contributes to the DARE program and does other charitable work. But to paraphrase Hicks and judges who made similar pronouncements in countless cases, simply being a nonprofit group that does some charitable work doesn't cut it. It must be the organization's reason for existing, and that's not the case with the Masons.

To be eligible for a tax exemption and to maintain one, Masonic lodges and other nonprofit organizations must file a report documenting their community service work. To protect taxpayers, Concord's assessing department is diligent about making sure that an exemption is justified, and that groups with an exemption continue to perform enough community service to keep it.

The bill's sponsors want to shortcut that process by inserting "Masonic temple or building association" into the short list of nonprofits, among them veterans organizations and the Red Cross, whose real estate is permanently exempt from taxation under state law. But the organization itself, on the website of the New Hampshire Grand Lodge of Free & Accepted Masons, flatly states that Freemasonry is "a system of morality and ethics . . . made of members who "seek to improve themselves and their daily existence."

Freemasonry is not a religion, creed or religious order, and not a charity, the Grand Lodge says, although the organization recognizes that "the tenet of charity as a foundation of love for humanity is a duty for all Masons." It is instead, "the oldest, largest, best known, and most widespread fraternity in the world."

Lawmakers should waste no more time on House Bill 396, and tell the Masons to keep paying their taxes.




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