Issue #4 – Thursday, June 12, 2014
KEENE – In the City of Keene’s Council Chambers on Wednesday, June 11, 2014, the four member Board of Assessors determined that the Shire Free Church has not met the legal burden of proof to qualify as a legitimate religious organization which can be exempted from property tax assessment.
The Shire Free Church is a nondenominational church founded in Keene last year for the purpose of proselytizing a philosophy of peace. According to its website, the SFC
“is an interfaith, diverse group of people who may not share identical theological beliefs. As a member in or minister of the Shire Free Church, you are a sovereign individual and may be the faith of your choice whether it be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, Jewish, Quaker, etc, or following your inner light. Monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, panentheists, and atheists are all welcome, as long as you are peaceful.”
The Church currently has five ministers, and several branches in New Hampshire; the Monadnock branch currently meets weekly on Sunday mornings at its parsonages at 73 and 75 Leverett Street in Keene. These properties were the site under consideration by the Board of Assessment.
Yesterday’s meeting was attended by at least two dozen members of the public. Several attendees videotaped the proceedings.
Church founder Mark Edgington addressed the Board. Edgington is co-host of the nationally syndicated talk radio program Free Talk Live, which is now owned by the Shire Free Church. Edgington spoke frankly, acknowledging that liberty activists in Keene have developed a certain reputation over the last several years that is not appreciated by all members of the community. He expressed his belief that the SFC has been singled out for that reason, stating that City Assessor Dan Langille has admitted that no other church in town has been sent a questionnaire by the Board of Assessors in order to prove its own legitimacy. He pointed out that the SFC has paid all but $3500 of its assessed property taxes; the unpaid amount was withheld because the Church is morally opposed to the public school system and therefore has chosen to withhold that portion of its taxes.
Edgington stated that the SFC has met every legal requirement of the State of New Hampshire to be considered a religious organization. He assured the Board that he and the members of the Church are both sincere and determined, and will take this issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. He pointed out that the costs to the City of a legal battle would far surpass the $3500 per year in withheld property taxes. He also pointed out that another branch of the City government has acknowledged the legitimacy of the Church by deeming it acceptable for purposes of fulfilling community service requirements.
Edgington provided a brief history of the SFC, stating that in his role as co-host of FTL, where he spends six evenings a week talking about liberty and peace to a national audience, he gradually came to realize that he was, in fact, a minister preaching a moral philosophy. Eventually he decided to formalize this by founding the SFC and declaring the building that hosts the FTL studio as a parsonage. The building was previously owned by his FTL co-host Ian Freeman, who has legally transferred ownership of the property to the registered New Hampshire nonprofit Shire Free Church Monadnock.
After Edgington’s address to the Board, he fielded several questions from Board member Mary Ann Robator. When asked if the Church has filed with the IRS for 501(c)(3) tax exempt status, he said no; per the IRS, registration is not mandatory, and since the Church encourages its members not to pay taxes on moral grounds, there’s no point in it applying to make donations to itself tax-deductible.
After a brief Q&A period, Langille read aloud the report which he intended to file with the City. It stated that he doesn’t feel the Church has sufficiently met the burden of proof for tax exempt status. His recommendation was therefore to deny tax exempt status.
Robator stated that political activism flies in the face of religion. The fact that Edgington referred to himself and other Church members as “activists” proves that religion is not their primary motivation in founding the Church. (After this remark, an unidentified member of the public muttered “Martin Luther King Jr.?”) She said “There is a difference between form and substance”, and clearly does not believe in the substance of this Church.
The Board then unanimously voted to deny the Church tax exempt status. The meeting was adjourned only twenty minutes after it began.
When asked after the meeting if he was surprised by the outcome, Edgington chuckled and said “Not in the slightest”. He indicated that he knew it was going to be an uphill battle, but appeared determined to see it through. Edgington and fellow Church minister Darryl W. Perry spoke with Shire Liberty News about the philosophy of the church, its ministers, and the Keene parsonages. Similar to the Unitarian Church, membership in the SFC does not require exclusivity; Edgington himself is also a practicing Quaker. The only requirements to join the SFC are that an individual be “of peace”, sign the Shire Society Declaration, and declare himself to be a member.
Edgington reiterated what he stated to the Board: “We want to separate voluntarily from the legal system.” Forming a Church and meeting the government’s stated legal requirements seems to be the best way to do that.
The Board’s decision is final. The SFC has the opportunity to contest the decision, and according to Edgington will do so.