Pagan exemption still questioned in Catskill
Jan 07, 2011 5:57 am
[caption id="" align="alignright" width="200" caption="The Central House or Phygianum of the Maetreum of Cybele in Palenville, as seen in the 1930s in a photo from the religious group's website."][/caption]A Palenville pagan sect fighting for the town’s recognition as a religious entity says it will not stop, even if it needs to go federal, Colin DeVries reports in this morning's Daily Mail, writing about how an ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill by the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater has entered its fifth year, with the municipality continuing to deny a religious property the tax exemption it once granted for 2006. The exemption, DeVries writes, was denied in 2007 when the town claimed that the property, and not the religious group itself, did not conform to the real property tax law’s definition for an exempt not-for-profit religious organization. The women of the Maetreum, meanwhile, insist that their home, an old boarding house structure once known as the Central House hotel, has been consistently used as a house of charitable works, a temple, a pagan retreat, and a convent for pagan priestesses.
Meanwhile, The Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, Inc. is recognized as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) religious organization by the IRS.
The property, assessed at $135,000, includes the three-story former hotel and a two-story residence on three acres.
Cathryn Platine, the Maetreum’s spiritual leader, continues to fight for the priestess’ right to operate a religious organization who seeks to play a charitable role in the community.
“Our goal is to give us back our exemption and give us back the money that they’ve extorted from us,” she said. “We’ve been completely up front and answered everything from the beginning.”
Attorney Valeria Gheorghiu of Kingston has continued to advocate the Maetreum’s position since filing a lawsuit against the town in 2009.
The town’s attorney, Daniel Vincelette, moved to dismiss the 2009 case because there were no facts supporting religious activity on the property.
That motion was denied by Greene County Court Judge George J. Pulver in October 2010.
Gheorghiu filed another petition against the town assessor, Nancy McCoy, in July 2010, arguing the property was conforming to the religious property statute and should be granted the exemption for 2010 as well.
Gheorghiu and Platine are also fight for something greater.
“This isn’t just for us, this is for all minority religions,” Platine said. “They took on the wrong people this time and I don’t understand why they don’t just cut their losses.”
Platine said the Maetreum has spent about $10,000 in legal fees fighting to preserve their property in Palenville with a “very, very reasonably priced attorney.”
The town, Platine estimated, has spent over $50,000 on attorney fees to remove an exemption that would net the town less than $750 annually at the current town tax rate.
“I’m amazed that (the town) is continuing this,” she said. “We’re prepared to take it to federal court.”
The town budgets $40,000 annually for tax certiorari cases and, according to Catskill Town Comptroller Sandy Misevcis on Tuesday, the town spent at least $73,000 fighting property tax cases in 2010.
Most of the tax battles have a larger affect on the Catskill Central School District, Misevcis said. The district supplies the town funds for tax litigation and, Misevcis said, amendments to the town’s tax certiorari fund increased to $108,000.
“They roll over for Wal-Mart and keep spending it on us?” Platine said, referring to tax assessment concessions that are continually granted for the corporate conglomerate of Catskill Commons. “The cost-benefit to the town for denying us our legitimate exemption is phenomenal.”
Platine said she and her other priestesses have received ample support from the pagan community nationwide, and they are ready to bring this fight for religious status to the top.
“I would love a resolution to this,” she said. “Their case just keeps getting worse and worse and worse.”
Vincelette filed another motion to dismiss the case in November 2010. The motion featured the deposition of a woman the Maetreum took in as part of their emergency housing assistance program.
The woman, who Platine said lived at the residence for about two months last summer, claimed they were not a practicing religious organization. Platine said the woman was disgruntled and simply chose not to participate in any of their religious ceremonies, of which participation is voluntary to emergency housing guests.
Emergency housing assistance is part of the Maetreum’s charitable work, Platine said, and a Jewish woman has recently taken up residence there to get out of an abusive domestic situation.
The court has yet to rule on the motion.
Even as this court battle continues to be waged, Platine and her supporters press on, holding ceremonies and events at their property.
Last summer they hosted the second annual Pagan Pride Day, featuring unique crafts and workshops to help educate on various pagan religious movements.
As the case moves forward into 2011, Platine said she is prepared to file another grievance for the tax exemption, though she hopes there will be a resolution before then.