If approved by voters in November, a property-tax initiative on the ballot in Colorado could cost The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at least $1.7 million a year.
Amendment 11 is a grass-roots movement to end the property-tax exemptions for churches and most other nonprofit organizations.
The proposal's backers say they have nothing against such groups, but it is high time that churches and charities paid for the municipal services they enjoy.
``The police and fire departments are just another utility, and the Mormon church has just as much obligation to pay for those as they do the light bill,'' said John Patrick Michael Murphy, a Colorado Springs trial lawyer who is leading the Amendment 11 effort.
LDS Church spokesman Don LeFevre said the church hasn't taken an official position on Amendment 11, but that it generally opposes attempts to make churches pay property tax. The church has argued that taxes are an infringement on the freedom of religion.
The LDS Church owns numerous valuable properties throughout the United States. Taxation of those properties could cost the church millions of dollars a year.
LeFevre declined to comment on the church's potential tax liability, should the initiative pass.
``By policy, the information you seek is for internal use only,'' he said.
By the end of 1995, the LDS Church reported 101,000 members, 210 wards, two missions and one temple in Colorado.
On average, three wards share a church building, so the church could own about 70 buildings in Colorado.
If each property had a market value of $1 million, each would have a tax liability of about $24,000, according to Stan Gueldenzopf, property-tax specialist for the Colorado Department of Revenue.
Multiplied by 70, that figure amounts to just under $1.7 million.
The movement in Colorado to tax churches has grown out of a frustration among lifelong taxpayers that all property owners are not paying their share of the tax burden.
``We believe in freedom of religion but we also believe in freedom from religion,'' Murphy said, arguing that a tax exemption for religions results in an unfair tax burden on the nonreligious.
``Mormons ought to be supported by the Mormons, not by freethinkers like me,'' Murphy said.
Besides, ``the amount of taxation and the amount of properties owned by nonprofit organizations are getting out of hand,'' said Murphy who has donated nearly $60,000 to promote Amendment 11.
Murphy said the idea behind Amendment 11 is not to increase government revenues with the new taxation but to reduce taxes.
``We're broadening the tax base to raise the same amount of revenue,'' he said.
If Amendment 11 passes, Colorado would become the first state to end special tax status for churches.
Opponents of the amendment, however, say it may force many marginally profitable churches and charities to go out of business or cut educational and welfare programs that save governments money.
© Copyright 1996, The Salt Lake Tribune
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