The Porter County Property Tax Assessment Board of Appeals is puzzling over tax-exempt status for a 36-acre site in Porter Township that also serves as a private home.
This case tests the limits of current legal definitions.
During a recent hearing, board member Vicki Urbanik flat out asked an attorney for PreachIt, which owns the property, "Are you a church?"
The exchange between Urbanik and PreachIt attorney Tammy Ortman is telling.
"How do you define a church?" Ortman asked. "By statute, yes, it is a church. I don't know if that's within what you understand that term to mean or what I understand that term to mean. If it means does it have a steeple on the building, the answer is no."
This $1.1 million, 36-acre site in Porter Township has an 8,746-square-foot home, pond and two barns. The Porter County assessor's office began the current inquiry into this property after discovering a religious exemption had been granted in 2009 for part of the site and no property taxes are being paid on any of it.
So is this a church or isn't it?
The Internal Revenue Service, Ortman said, understands a church to include a group that holds services, administers sacraments and is led by an ordained individual. That's a loose definition.
One logical test might be whether the would-be church is open to the public.
Urbanik asked whether this home is open to the public.
"Invitees, I think, would be the proper term — and certainly the answer to that would be yes," Ortman said. "But to say we have a revolving door so that the public can come and go anytime, that answer would be no."
Churches these days often lock their doors when the building is unattended, a sad aspect of life in the modern era. But there's a difference between locking the door when the building is unattended and putting up a "No trespassing" sign like the one on the PreachIt property.
In Matthew 28:19, Jesus gave His disciples what is known as the Great Commission, to "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."
It's hard to see how a "No trespassing" sign fits in with that commandment.
If it's a church, according to the IRS definition, that definition needs to be refined. A house of worship should be open to anyone who chooses to worship there — especially if its leaders hope to get tax breaks.