FFRF gets church property on tax rolls

A Freedom From Religion Foundation letter of complaint Aug. 21 about a wrongful religious tax exemption in Wichita, Kan., resulted in the property being put back on the tax rolls and back taxes assessed.

Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott wrote to Sedgwick County Appraiser Mike Borchard after being alerted by a Wichita FFRF member about a residence owned by Grace Baptist Church, which is the home of a local politician. The home has been exempt from property taxes as a church parsonage since 1996.

Elliott noted, “It is our information and understanding that the use of the West Haskell [Street] home does not qualify as an exempt use. Michael O’Donnell II lives at the home. He is the son of the senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. We understand that Mr. O’Donnell is on the Wichita City Council and also works as a communications director. He is running for state office and filed forms with the Kansas Secretary of State listing 1435 West Haskell Street as his residence.”

“The Wichita Eagle reported that Mr. O’Donnell rents the house from Grace Baptist Church and that Mr. O’Donnell ‘promises that he lives where he says he lives.’ It appears that the property has not been used exclusively as a home for an acting minister who regularly conducts religious services in a long time,” Elliott wrote.

While the county appraiser has not officially responded to FFRF, a Sept. 27 story in the Wichita Eagle reported that the property is going back on the tax rolls because it is not being used as a church parsonage.

Mark Clark, deputy county appraiser, was quoted, “We have reviewed the situation and we do believe the property should be taxable. So we’re processing the paperwork to make it taxable from 2010.”

Pastor Michael O’Donnell said the church will refile a tax exemption request, “essentially appealing the appraiser’s ruling,” the Eagle reported. Under state law, there is a presumption that property is taxable. The church will have the burden to show that the house is exempt. It’s not known yet how much the church could owe in taxes or why 2010 was the date chosen.

The property is currently appraised at $76,100. County records show no general property taxes have been billed since at least 2002.

The younger O’Donnell, who has now changed his original story to the newspaper, accused FFRF of having “a political agenda.”

Not so, responded Elliott, “We’re an apolitical group, a nonprofit that does not get involved in elections or campaigns, but we are concerned about state-church issues, including churches abusing tax privileges, which was the case here.”

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