|ACTION - Lammas 2010 - Article 5|
Action is the official newsletter of the Alternative Religions Educational Network
A Matter of Property Tax Exemption, Phygianum of the Maetreum of Cybele
Outside of the hamlet of Palenville, New York, near the town of Catskill, an historic old three story hotel, The Central House is owned by Phygianum of the Maetreum of Cybele. This is a Federally recognized nonprofit Pagan religious organization. As a religious organization trying to create a nunnery for followers of Cybele.
They applied to the Town of Catskill Board of Review for a property tax exemption as a nonprofit Religious organization and got it only to have it rescinded and beinning left in legal limbo.
The town of Catskill was demanding back taxes and the situation is heading toward a long costly legal battle that the Pagan group can ill afford. I decided to interview Cathryn Platine and find out more about what was going on.
Christopher: Could you tell our readers a bit about yourself?
Cathryn: I am a lifelong Pagan of a "certain" age who spent part of my childhood in India and traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe. I was also a member of the sixties counterculture and activist who never surrendered the counterculture values.
In the mid 70's, for several years, I taught a course on the history of Magick and the Occult for the Ohio State Free University and was a consultant to the OSU Psychology Dept. on matters related to occult subjects.
I've worked at a variety of jobs in my lifetime including having been a master cabinetmaker, a psychiatric aid, a nursing assistant, short order cook and even worked Carney a couple of summers.
Today I am physically disabled but dedicate all my time to running the Phrygianum (the name of our Convent home from the Roman complex) and researching ancient history and writing. I hold a PhD in history.
Christopher: What are your hopes and dreams for the Phygianum of the Maetreum of Cybele?
Cathryn: We view the Cybeline Revival in terms of centuries and accept that our growth is likely to be slow because we represent an ancient way of seeing the world. One that requires individuals do the work to connect with the Divine within themselves and thus has no pat "answers" or leaders acting as go betweens.
We hope to see our place become a place of sanctuary and healing in a world gone mad with greed and a model of cooperative, communal living. In a small way we have already done that.
Christopher: When did you get recognized by the IRS as a nonprofit religious organization? Isn't the IRS pretty strict on what a non profit religious organizations has to be?
Cathryn: Actually, according to IRS regulations any organization that sees itself as a religion is supposed to be considered automatically a 501 c3 Religious Charity. Practically speaking, you need to file the application for formal recognition and the standards you must meet are quite high.
We applied for 501c3 status June of 2006 and it was granted , retroactive to our date of Incorporation in March of 2007, which was when our renewal of our property tax exemption was denied.
Christopher: When did you apply for the property tax exemption? Didn't you get it at one point?
Cathryn: I first contacted the Town about our property tax exemption shortly after the formal transfer of ownership of the Maetreum property to the Maetreum the fall of 2005. It was granted March of 2006
Christopher: When did it get rescinded and was any explanation given?
Cathryn: No reason was given. No reason was given even at the Board of Review hearing that year or the following year.
Christopher: Can you tell us some of the legal moves that have been used against you and how you have handled it?
Cathryn: Part of 2007 we had an attempted schism in our group as often happens with Pagan groups. The Town attorney called me and represented himself as a tax assessor who wished to confirm the number of structures on the property. He was given permission only to do that but took advantage of my not living on the property at the time to show up with an army of inspectors and bully his way into the main house. He wrote a "legal opinion" for the town based on his, extremely biased, viewpoints based on that visit. We finally obtained a copy of this legal opinion and the one he wrote the following year through a FOIA request.
Throughout this mess the "reasons" for denial have been almost impossible to pin down. Apparently the Town attorney is under the mistaken impression that I am the religion and my not living on the property for a short time is significant. He also has argued in his legal opinion that the fact we have always done charitable work, even before formal incorporation, housing women in need is some sort of proof of not being an exclusive religious property which is absurd given that the New York tax law covering mandated exempt classes is quite clear that charitable work, education and other activities are all equal and any two or more activities on the property are still in the mandated exempt class.
During the Board of Review hearing in 2009 the town assessor changed tactics and claimed we were being denied because we failed to file for a "change of use" permit (not part of the local code) and did not get building permits for work on the property when none of the work we did required one. This was in the form of an internal note from her to the Board of Review written just hours before the Hearing.
It claimed the building would have to be brought up to modern code. This is literally impossible with an historic building and actually meant they intended to condemn our building to force us to move.
Christopher: Do you feel that your history of being an activist is being held against you?
Cathryn: While I cannot say that for certain, I do know the Town Attorney had become absolutely obsessed with my personal history and spent a considerable amount of time and energy researching everything I ever wrote on the internet.
He made a particular point that originally we intended to provide housing for transsexual women in need. He has challenged my educational credentials, my clergy credentials, our 501c3 status over and over despite repeated addressing all of these repeatedly in the apparent hope of finding something, anything he could then question.
Christopher: So where does it go from here? To court, and at what cost?
Cathryn: We filed in New York Greene County Supreme Court last July and that case is ongoing. We are about to file again for the tax year 2010 as we were once again denied.
In New York apparently a corporation must be represented by a lawyer so even though I filed the case myself pro se, the Judge required us to get an attorney. That took months. Last fall we finally found a young attorney dedicated to progressive non profits. The cost, even though our attorney is quite reasonable, has been huge, more than 1/2 our annual budget.
Christopher: Haven't you been doing a lot of work to bring the hotel back up to its former glory? I believe this is what they call sweat labor as you and the women have been doing much of the work yourself.
Cathryn: We are quite proud of our historic Inn and have been restoring it ourselves since we first got it. We'd done almost all the work ourselves including plumbing, electric, restoring the plaster walls, putting on a new roof, storm windows and even casting concrete benches and columns for our outdoor Temple/Grove.
We even have a project we call "Women in 19th Century Technology" that celebrates telegraphy as the breakthrough industry for women. As part of that project we have a fully functional 1890's telegraph office at the Phrygianum and the main entry to the house has Suffragette posters, a period magnito wall phone and even a Western Union call bell.
Our restoration of the Phygrianum extends to decor as well to the 1890's.
Christopher: So this legal problem eats up both a lot of time and money?
Cathryn: This has been an extraordinary drain on all our resources, personal and money wise. I have personally been forced to expend much more of my limited time on this matter instead of the writing and research I am devoted to doing. It has eaten up all the money we had planned to spend on materials for the ongoing work around the property.
Christopher: Why might this case be important to the rest of the Pagan community?
Cathryn: We believe it is vital that we see this through to the end because the message has already been sent that claiming our equal rights with so called "mainstream" religions will involve much more time, energy and resources than most small religious groups can afford.
So we need to set precedence at this point to counter it. What is being done to us can be done to any minority religion, Pagan or otherwise simply by governmental bullying.
This must stop. It is unconstitutional and tied to the wider assault on individual rights and movement towards a Christian theocracy that is running rampant in the United States today.
Christopher: Where can people learn more about you, the Phygianum of the Maetreum of Cybele, the legal case, and what they can do to help?
Cathryn: Our website is at http://gallae.com and more on the Phrygianum is also available at http://centralhouse.gallae.com .
Jason at the Wild Hunt has covered the case a couple of times and there are online versions of press coverage at http://www.watershedpost.com/2010/pagan-exemption and http://www.thedailymail.net/articles/2010/06/26/news/doc4c2590cbf1143903145298.txt
Christopher: Is there anything else you would like to say,or like us to know?
Cathryn: Many people have made donations to our legal costs but this is an ongoing need. Please consider a fully tax deductible donation to help us see this through to firstname.lastname@example.org via paypal.
There is also a donation button at the top of the main webpage at gallae.com. We are a small, mostly self funded organization that has always operated on a shoestring budget. This battle has cost us thousands and thousands of dollars so far. If you cannot afford a small or even large donation, please keep sending energy our way to continue.