Masons seek tax-exempt status

Last modified: 2/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Five state representatives, all Freemasons, want an exemption on Masonic temple property taxes, citing the group's charitable contributions to illustrate its qualifications.

But Kathryn Temchack, the city director of real estate assessments, believes the group unfairly wants special treatment.

House Bill 396, sponsored by four Republicans and Democrat Stephen Shurtleff of Penacook, seeks to add 'Masonic temples or building associations to institutions whose property is exempt from taxation.'

Groups that perform religious, educational or charitable functions on their property are eligible for tax exemption status. The Masons donate money to the D.A.R.E. and reading programs as well as the Shriners Hospital for children.

'The Masons do a lot for charity,' said Shurtleff, a member of the Penacook chapter and a Freemason for more than 25 years. 'I can see if a lodge rented out to another agency and generated money from it, it should be taxable. But if money comes only from membership and it works as a charitable entity, I don't see why it's not tax-exempt like other organizations.'

The Freemasons date back hundreds, perhaps thousands of year, said Shawn Jasper, a Republican from Hudson and one of the bill's sponsors. Jasper said recorded minutes exist from the early 1700s, adding that some believe the Masons united during the Dark Ages, when churches and other houses of worship faded from the building landscape.

'All these skilled craftsmen who weren't building anything wanted to be able to pass the traditions on,' said Jasper, who belongs to a Nashua chapter and who's been a member for nearly 20 years. 'So it might have evolved from there.'

New Hampshire has 68 lodges, or local chapters, including one in Concord, the Blazing Star-Eureka Lodge 11 on Iron Works Road.

The Masons, for men only, is a spiritual organization open to all religions. Discussions on politics are forbidden in the temples. The belief in God and the brotherhood of men are primary focuses.

'We represent what is hopefully the best of mankind,' Jasper said. 'We're trying to teach how to better men. We refer to God, but we speak of God as the supreme being.'

'It's about helping yourself and helping people,' added Sherman Packard, a Republican from Londonderry and another sponsor.

While professing kindness and acceptance, the Masons have also been shrouded in mystery, accused of being a conspiratorial group looking to create a new world and hiding sinister secrets from the public.

Jasper laughed when asked about happenings behind closed doors.

'The common misconception is always that we were a secret society,' Jasper said. 'Of course, if we were a secret society, we wouldn't be having this phone conversation. We're a society with secrets, although you can find out just about anything about Freemasons on the internet.'

When asked about a new world order, Shurtleff said, 'I have too much going on to take on that chore.'

The Masonic movement has seen declining enrollment numbers in recent decades, Jasper said. His temple in Nashua, the Rising Sun, is stable financially, but others, like the one in Derry, are looking to sell their buildings.

All religious, educational and charitable organizations must apply for tax-exempt status each year on or before April 15.

House Bill 396 adds to the existing statute the words 'Masonic temple or building association' to a list of organizations, including national veterans associations, that must file by the deadline.

But, the bill goes on to say, 'The real estate and personal property owned by Granges or by Masonic Temples or building associations which are incorporated in this state shall be exempt from property taxes.'

Temchack said that means the Masons are looking to bypass the annual filing procedure.

'They're not saying that they want to petition and prove that they qualify,' Temchack said. 'The bottom line is they want to be tax-exempt and they don't want to have to prove anything, period.'

The Concord lodge paid $8,411 in property taxes last year, according to Temchack.

The House Municipal and County Government Committee will listen to testimony on the bill this morning at 10:45 in Room 301 of the Legislative Office Building.

(Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com.)




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