In Ohio, houses used exclusively for public worship, and not with a view to profit, are exempt from property taxation. The Ohio Supreme Court has long interpreted the word “exclusively” to mean “primarily.” In other words, a property must be used primarily for purposes of public worship in order to be exempt from property taxation. Recently, the Ohio Supreme Court expanded its interpretation of what it means for a property to be used, not with a view to profit, and primarily for purposes of public worship, when it determined in Christian Voice of Central Ohio v. Testa, 2016- Ohio-1527, that property housing a Christian radio station was exempt from property taxation.
Christian Voice of Central Ohio (now River Radio Ministries) owns property that is used to produce a Christian radio station. The station consists of about 95% Christian music, with the remaining time having been filled with talk segments by Christian Voice’s full time pastor. Revenue received by Christian Voice to support its mission of furthering the gospel takes the form of donations, and funds received as a result of advertising. The station is situated on a newly purchased property that is more than two acres, and includes a building that houses the station, offices, a meeting room and a chapel. The chapel is used four days a week to pray for the intentions of listeners, for a weekly Bible study, and for pastoral counseling by an outside pastor, and is open to the public. The meeting room is used by a number of religious organizations, regardless of denomination.
The Tax Commissioner denied Christian Voice’s application for exemption, citing a lack of evidence of individuals gathering to worship or profess their faith. The BTA agreed, finding that the above-mentioned activities do not rise to the level of public worship required for property tax exemption.
The Ohio Supreme Court disagreed, however, and granted the property tax exemption. The Court used a holistic approach to determine what constitutes public worship, rather than focusing on the primary purpose for which the property is being used. A distinction was drawn between traditional church services and the fact that modern worship can take many forms. Additionally, that music is a means of expressing religious beliefs was of significant note to the Court, and Christian Voice’s selling of advertisements to raise revenue was of little concern.
When receiving property tax exemption as a house of public worship, a religious organization has historically been required to demonstrate that the property is being used primarily for public worship, typically in the form of traditional worship services, and activities supportive of that worship. The Court’s holding in Christian Voice establishes a precedent that would permit a property used by a religious organization, not necessarily for traditional worship services, but for a myriad of other uses supportive of its religious mission, including the playing of music, bible study, counseling and meetings, to be eligible for property tax exemption as a house used exclusively for public worship. This ruling may open the door for many types of organizations with a religious mission to receive exemption for taxation of properties used to achieve their goals.