Fellowship of Friends sues Yuba County over tax status

The Appeal-Democrat, California/September 24, 2014

A Yuba County foothills organization is seeking a $600,000 property tax refund, claiming its worship center should not be taxed.

The Fellowship of Friends filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the county, asking for the refund and a declaration the center be protected through religious exemptions from future taxation.

Yuba County spokesman Russ Brown said Wednesday he would not comment on pending litigation.

The complaint filed in Yuba County Superior Court says the Fellowship was erroneously and illegally taxed between 2009 and 2013 when the county assessor refused to recognize the Fellowship's right to religious and welfare exemptions.

The Fellowship, headquartered at 12607 Rices Crossing Road, Oregon House, describes itself as a nondenominational church with principles based on "universal religious teachings that transmit the art and science of recognizing and experiencing a Divine Presence."

There are 1,600 members of the church in more than 30 countries throughout the world, according to information included with the petition. The central focus of the suit is a multi-use 5,600-square-foot building referred to as the Galleria, described as housing books,

antiques, sculptures, tapestries, instruments, and other arts considered by followers to be vehicles for transmitting the immortal state of Divine Presence.

Formal services, meals, and other events of sacramental nature occur at The Galleria, according to the complaint.

Whether the Galleria — valued at $3.3 million — is a museum or a religious sanctuary is part of the issue.

The Fellowship sought tax exemption for the Galleria in the mid-1980s, but the county denied the application on the grounds the Galleria was not used exclusively as a museum, the complaint said.

In the early 1990s, the Fellowship obtained a conditional use permit to operate a museum, but the permit required several "burdensome conditions of approval" and the "onerous and expensive conditions" were never initiated and the permit expired, according to the complaint.

The Fellowship closed the property to the public and it now "remains exclusively a place of religious worship and ceremonial religious events."

County Counsel Angil Morris-Jones told the board in March the use permit granted for that building to be used as a museum was not for a temporary use and is still intact.

"Currently the use is as a museum," she said. "It runs with the land and does not expire," she said.

The lawsuit was anticipated by Supervisor Andy Vasquez when the board voted to reject a property tax refund request from the Fellowship in March.

Supervisors John Nicoletti, Roger Abe and Hal Stocker voted to deny the refund, saying there was no reason to reverse past county assessor rulings. Vasquez voted in favor, saying the group merits an exemption. Supervisor Mary Jane Griego was absent.

 The complaint claims the supervisors unfairly or inconsistently interpreted and applied their own permitting ordinances. And that the supervisors exhibited and allowed unwarranted hostility toward the Fellowship with their remarks.

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