Colorado effort could strip churches of tax exemptions


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Colorado would become a much less hospitable place for churches and charities under a proposed initiative to eliminate almost all property-tax exemptions for churches and nonprofit organizations.

John Patrick Michael Murphy, a personal-injury lawyer and host of a weekly radio talk show who is leading the effort to get the measure on the November ballot, said that more than 80,000 signatures have been collected on petitions. He said they will be delivered to the secretary of state Thursday. Only 54,242 signatures are needed to get on the ballot.

Nonprofit schools and universities, and groups that provide housing for prisoners, orphans, the elderly, the disabled and the homeless would still be exempt from property taxes.

But the initiative would eliminate tax exemptions for churches, synagogues and mosques, nonprofit organizations involved in everything from arts to athletics, zoos, religious retreats, many health-care facilities, fraternal organizations and soup kitchens.

State officials estimate that the amendment would put nearly $3 billion worth of land and buildings on the state tax rolls, yielding nearly $70 million in new property tax revenues. Under terms of the amendment, the money would be used to reduce taxes for residents.

Efforts to cut tax exemptions for nonprofit groups have failed in some communities around the nation, but Coloradans have shown their appreciation for moves to cut their tax bills. In 1992 voters supported an initiative requiring that any tax increase be put to a vote.

"We're taking this pretty seriously, unfortunately," Pat Read, the executive director of the Colorado Association of Nonprofit Organizations, said.

The Denver-based group recently warned its 900 members that the initiative represents an "attack" that "undermines the entire nonprofit sector and may produce permanent damage."

Ms. Read said the amendment would force many large nonprofit groups to slash staff and services. For smaller, cash-strapped groups and churches, "the results would be disastrous," she said.

"What this comes down to is people taking a rather short-sighted look toward what's going to stay in my pocketbook, as opposed to what kind of community do I want to live in and do I want my children to live in," she said.

The Rev. Lucia Guzman, the executive director of the Colorado Council of Churches, agreed that the initiative may force many small churches to close. Mr. Guzman said that with some government leaders challenging churches to compensate for cuts in federal social service programs, "this is the wrong time to load them up with more taxes."

For some of the initiative's supporters here in Colorado Springs, the amendment is an effort to halt the influx and growth of evangelical Christian organizations.

More than 70 religious organizations and companies, such as the Navigators, Young Life and the International Bible Society, are based here.

Some state and local government officials said initiative supporters have overstated the impact of the measure's potential tax savings.

"At best, the owner of the average Colorado Springs house will save $44 a year on a $110,000 house," said John Bass, chief appraiser for the El Paso County assessor's office.

But Janet Brazill, who circulated petitions for the initiative here, said she objected to subsidizing conservative groups she disagrees with. "I also support religious liberty, but," she said, "I would rather put my money toward things I believe in."

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