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Taxing Church Sanctuaries

February 28, 1988

As the first Los Angeles County assessor in recent history to risk navigating a politically perilous sea of property tax exemption which constantly erodes the shores of what is now only an island of local government revenue, I read your editorial "Taxing the Church Sanctuaries" (Feb. 15) with mixed emotions.

I agree with your observation that the law contains, considering the current list of more than 75 exemption categories, "much to confound an assessor"--particularly since this freedom from taxation includes not only churches but bingo, wine and brandy, fraternal lodges and the personal property of insurance companies and banks.

But I strongly object to the viewpoint expressed in the characterization of my review of the exemption status for houses of worship publicly declaring themselves to be undocumented alien sanctuaries as "the chill breath of an overeager tax collector." The Times as well as other media pay their fair share of taxes and this does not seem to have curtailed their freedom of the press under the First Amendment.

As you pointed out, there is, indeed, some $14 billion worth of exempt property in this county alone. These exemptions result in tens of millions of dollars in revenue being lost to cities, school districts and county government.

All that is asked of our religious leaders is that they conform with our generous exemption regulations by confining the physical use of churches, synagogues and temples to the practice of worship as broadly defined by state law. There is even a provision allowing religious institutions to switch from a "church" to a "charitable" exemption if ongoing shelter is to be provided in a house of worship--whether it involves foreign refugees or U.S. homeless citizens.

This viewpoint is backed up by a recent opinion written by a tax counsel to the state Board of Equalization. I am, however, seeking additional advice from other state and county lawyers before deciding whether or not to revoke any exemptions involving sanctuary.

I feel no "enthusiasm for taking on the sanctuary movement," as The Times suggests. But I will not hesitate to reexamine, in concert with state and county lawyers, the issue of exemptions--at a time when a lack of revenue is resulting in cutbacks in basic police and fire protection--local services just as vital for a church as for any other property.

JOHN J. LYNCH

Assessor

Los Angeles County

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