Alan Chartock: Assessing the Church’s predicament
GREAT BARRINGTON -- OK, here goes. I love Arlo Guthrie.
Now that Pete Seeger is gone, Arlo is the reigning voice of folk music. He can fill huge halls all over the world. The Guthrie roots run from his famous father Woody to his musical children. He is one of the great cultural assets of the Berkshires. People come from all over the world to visit Arlo’s Church at the Guthrie Center, the site of the famous "Alice’s Restaurant Massacree." I’ve been there and watched Japanese visitors come to pay homage. Ditto the Germans. Name the country -- they’ve come to see the Church.
Arlo bought the Church with his late wife, Jackie. They turned it into a not-for-profit and properly registered it as a church. The Church, which Arlo has always appropriately called a "Bring your own God" church, has hosted all kinds of religious services as well as community events. Arlo and his whole extended family really care about their fellow man. They even offer up free community lunch every Thursday. We are so lucky to have them in Great Barrington.
The only problem is that the Church made a mistake. Instead of doing what almost every other religious or not-for-profit institution does and exercising their tax-exempt status, they have paid taxes over the years to the town of Great Barrington. Churches are exempt from such taxes and the people who run the Church should have known that but unfortunately, they didn’t and paid those taxes. They don’t want their money back for all those years -- they just want to not have to pay in the future like all the others in their category.
Despite Arlo’s generosity and all the fundraising he does for the Church, they are close to the fiscal line like so many other not-for-profits. When they realized that they were behind in the taxes they shouldn’t have been paying in the first place, they asked their attorney, Harris Aaronson, what could be done. He went to the Great Barrington Board of Assessors and asked for the exemption that they so obviously deserved. The folks on the board turned them down.
It is my impression that somehow the members of the Board of Assessors believed that since the Guthrie Center had received some funding from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, they couldn’t qualify as a church because that would violate the doctrine of separation of church and state. Had they applied as the Guthrie Center, strictly under their 501c3 designation and not as church, there would have been no problem.
Not only did the assessors turn down the Guthrie request for tax exemption, it is unclear to me whether they did so in executive session which it seems might violate the strict open meetings law. When he asked if the Church could come in to make its case, the lawyer said he was told that the head assessor had polled his fellow members who did not want to extend that simple courtesy.
After consulting with several sources about the situation, I am under the impression that the town Board of Assessors wants to help Arlo and his Church but only if Arlo applies not as a church but as a not-for-profit. So now Arlo’s lawyers have to go back to the assessors and ask that his group be granted tax exempt status as a 501c3 organization and not a church. Arlo will do that. On the other hand, Arlo wants to make it clear that one part of the Guthrie Center is a church and that it will always be just that. Good for Arlo.
Problem solved. When people of good will in our small communities try to work together, all kinds of conflicts can be resolved. As we say in the journalism business, I’ll be keeping my eye on this one to make sure that it all goes well.
Alan Chartock, a Great Barrington resident, is president and CEO of WAMC Northeast Public Radio and a professor emeritus of communications at SUNY-Albany.
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