Despite legal battle wins, Maetreum of Cybele may lose financial war

Cara Schulz —  August 21, 2014 — 16 Comments

Maetreum of Cybele, a nonprofit religious organization, may be winning its legal battles against the Town of Catskill over a property tax exemption, but if the town’s alleged tactic of pushing them into bankruptcy works, the wins in the courtroom won’t matter. Unless the Maetreum raises $10,000 for legal fees, they may have to declare bankruptcy.

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

The legal issue at hand is if the Maetreum uses its property primarily for religious purposes, which would exempt them from paying property taxes. The Town of Catskill says the group is an “illegitimate religion” and is using the property for residential, rather than religious uses. The Maetreum says the town doesn’t want to “open the floodgates” to other nonprofit groups claiming tax exemptions which deprives the town of tax revenue.

Despite the unanimous decision in 2013 by a three judge panel of the Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court favorable to the Maetreum, the Town of Catskill took the unusual step of appealing the ruling to the New York State Court of Appeals. A ruling by the Court of Appeals is expected later this Fall and the Maetrum expects it to uphold the previous decision that the Maetreum is a religious nonprofit and as such is exempt from paying property taxes. Catskill also recently filed charges against the Maetreum for refusing to allow a municipal inspection to look for code violations and a trial is now scheduled for late September. The Maetreum, in an effort to preserve their property rights while the September trail takes place, filed suit against the town’s attempt to use property codes to condemn and foreclose on the property in the Greene County Supreme Court of New York.

So far the Maestreum has paid out more than $65,000 in legal fees. The Town of Catskill, the Maestreum estimates, has spent hundreds of thousands. But the town’s deep pockets, Rev. Mother Cathryn Platine says, is how the town plans to win despite their losses in the courtroom, “Rather than being over, we now find ourselves in three legal actions at once. The town dragged the original two legal actions out for years with multiple bullshit motions and now this. The town attorney is known for this tactic against non-profits all over the state. To make it too expensive to keep fighting them.”

The town may finally be successful. If the Maetreum can’t raise $10,000 in the next few weeks to cover legal fees for the appeal, the Pagan convent may close.

On August 18th the Maetreum put out this statement via Facebook:

I’ve put off writing this for a long time. We are down to the wire on our long long legal battle and we are tapped out. Basically the bulk of the legal funds to date have been raised among a smallish group of our own priestesses and several extremely loyal supporters. The bulk of the money even from the fundraising efforts came from these folks.

Our lawyer is demanding payment of the balance of her bill for this last appeal and we simply do not have it. Many of us have done without for several years now to keep the battle going but there is nothing left to do without anymore, little to sell of our personal treasures. We’ve raised more than 65,000 dollars for legal fees so far and need that last 10 grand. Think about it, our annual operating costs run around 18 thousand a year and that is what we can cover comfortably ourselves and still do charitable work. That charitable work is now at a standstill, our plans for a summer of workshop weekends put off another year, our community radio station we already have the license for, a dream only.

We need help and cannot afford to raise funds from IndieGoGo again because it costs too damn much if you cannot meet your goal and the last campaign was a disaster.

Please don’t let the town of Catskill finally succeed by spending us into bankruptcy which was their tactic all along.

Paypal whatever you can afford to centralhouse@gallae.com or send a check to:

Maetreum of Cybele
3312 Route 23A
Palenville, NY 12463

Others, we’ve heard, have raised money in our names, if so we haven’t seen any of it so please donate directly.

 

The Wild Hunt has been covering this case since its beginnings in 2009.

Here is a timeline of events as they happened:

Outdoor temple at the Maetreum.

Outdoor temple at the Maetreum.

In 2007 the Maetreum of Cybele, a nonprofit religious organization, petitioned the Town of Catskill for property tax exemption. The organization was turned down after the “town lawyer, Daniel Vincelette, toured the building and issued a damning report describing a decrepit structure that stank of cat urine, lacked visible religious symbols, and operated as a crypto-housing project” (Watershed Post, May 8, 2010,)

In 2009 the Maetreum filed a grievance with the town’s Board of Assessment Review claiming “religious discrimination.” The Board upheld the tax assessor’s denial leading to the Maetreum filing a lawsuit with the state Supreme Court in Greene County. In a letter to the Wild Hunt, Rev. Cathryn Platine and Rev. Viktoria Whittaker wrote: “We own real property and run a brick-and-mortar establishment in the Town of Catskill in Greene County, New York. Our property consists of a historic former Catskill Inn called Central House and approximately 3+ acres of land with an outdoor Temple/Grove in the hamlet of Palenville. We purchased the property 2002 and turned it into a Pagan Temple and Convent … The Town of Catskill has continued to deny our exemption to this day in open violation of New York tax law which mandates the property tax exemption for religious and charitable organizations.”

In 2010 the case, Maetreum of Cybele versus the Town of Catskill, went to court where it lingered for over a year. During that time the Town repeatedly petitioned to have the case dismissed and attempted to foreclose on the organization’s property. In May the Maetreum issued a press release saying: “The attorney for the Town admitted in court, on the record that the real reason for the denials of our property tax exemption … was to prevent “opening the floodgates to similar groups.” This is an open admission of discrimination. At this point, every single ruling by the Judge has been in our favor and we anticipate eventual victory.”

In 2011 that victory came. The Maetreum received a “court ordered stay from all foreclosure proceedings until the resolution of its legal actions against the Town of Catskill.” Judge George P. Pulver Jr. of the state Supreme Court in Greene County ruled in favor of the Maetreum. The case garnered national attention through an article printed in The New York Times.

Shortly after Pulver’s ruling, the Maetreum petitioned the Town’s Board of Assessment Review once again. Just as before the request was denied. By December the case was back in court.

maetreum sign largeIn 2012 Supreme Court Judge Richard Platkin reversed Pulver’s decision and ruled in favor of the Town stating: “The Court has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the religions and spiritual beliefs of the adherents of the Cybaline Revival who testified in these proceedings. But regardless of the sincerity of these beliefs and the importance that Cybaline Revival doctrine may attach to the property and its religious use … the Court finds that the property’s principal and predominant use at relevant times was residential, rather than religion, in nature.”

By the time of the ruling, both parties had invested large sums of money in fighting the case. Neither the town nor Rev. Platine had any plans of backing down. According to a 2011 Daily Mail article, acting Catskill Town Supervisor Patrick Walsh said that “the town was already too deep into the case to give up and that significant dollars could be saved by preventing exemptions for illegitimate religions.”

In 2013 the Maetreum of Cybele filed an appeal with the Appellate Division of the state’s Supreme Court. On Nov. 21 a three-judge panel ruled in favor of the Maetreum stating: “Considering the testimony, [the Maetreum of Cybele] met its burden to demonstrate that it uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes.”

Once again the story made national news. This time it was in Forbes Magazine. After the ruling, the Maetreum of Cybele released a statement thanking everyone who had contributed to their fundraising efforts saying, “It is truly a win for all minority religions setting forth the standard that we Pagans are to be treated in law the same as the so called mainstream religions.”

At the start of 2014, the Town of Catskill filed an appeal with the New York State Court of Appeals. According to the Watershed Post, this court only hears a very small percentage of the presented cases. In 2012 that number was 6.4 percent. Therefore “the court’s decision to accept the [Town’s] appeal came as a surprise to Deborah Schneer, the lawyer for the Maetreum.”

Now in its seventh year, the case sits in the hands of the Court of Appeals. The Maetreum of Cybele stated: “The chairman of the Board of Catskill once vowed they would never give up their fight against what he called an illegitimate religion and Catskill is keeping that promise by appealing our victory to the highest court in New York once again forcing us to raise a large amount of money for a legal defense.”

The Wild Hunt will continue to follow and report on the case, and the organization’s fundraising efforts, as it progresses.

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Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she's the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.
  • Crystal Hope Kendrick

    This is heartbreaking and simply maddening. What a bully the town has turned out to be. I hope at the very least the residents of Catskill get angry enough over the misuse of city funds to vote these jerks out.

  • Lucius Svartwul, Helsen

    I find myself wondering if this battle is really worth it. This and similar stories about pagans being run out of business by town with apparently limitless pockets tells me that we are wasting our efforts on places not worth our while. And these stories seem to be in places in the country that should accept us. I wonder if the above place had waited a while longer and established itself more before filing for tax exempt, if this problem would have happened.

    If we continue to win battles like this, but ultimately lose the war for existence, we lose everything. Pagans hoping to start similar places will not do so if they know doing so will lead only to ruin. Maybe paying the taxes should have been viewed as an acceptable evil, in the face of their responsibility to exist and help their people. Now, they may not have to pay taxes, because they will not be there, and then who will help those they first sought to serve?

    • Cathryn Platine

      Within our tiny hamlet of Palenville we are widely supported and respected for our charitable works and community involvement. Our problem stems from a smallish group of out and out bigots who run the town of Catskill.
      Things worth doing are worth fighting for. Sacred spaces are sacred regardless of efforts to run you off. If Paganism is to ever actually thrive, we MUST stand up and be counted and demand, not beg, for equal treatment with the Abrahamic faiths. You lose the battle for existence by cutting and running.

    • Kristin

      Fighting for our rights to live and worship where we choose is certainly worth it.

      We won’t be given that without being willing to fight for it. It’s ridiculous that we do have to fight for it, but apathy never cured injustice.

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      I can’t but agree. I keep reading about incidents such as this, where people struggle for acceptance in areas where there clearly isn’t any.

      Surely it makes more sense to relocate to areas where you will (more likely to) be supported?

      Sounds like ghettoism, but the alternative seems to be expensive battles that result in very little.

  • Shira Tarantino

    This makes me so very sad. Wish I had the funds to whip out my checkbook and call it a day. It disgusts me- the tactics that the Town of Catskills has used to render this organization powerless. What kind of signal are we sending to the American people if a person or entity doesn’t have the means for a level playing field is a court of law?

  • NeoWayland

    By providing a tax exemption, the town gave itself the power to decide worthy and not-worthy religions. It’s a version of the same game the FedGovs have been playing for years.

    Perhaps it would be better if there were not tax exemptions?

    • Cathryn Platine

      In New York State, the State constitution mandates property tax exemptions for churches….. The town is in open violation of the law and does not have the power to decide who is and isn’t a church. That is the central issue here. Until christian churches pay taxes, we deserve equal treatment under the law/

      • NeoWayland

        I agree that Christian churches should pay taxes.

        But look at what has happened. The whole tax exemption thing means that government decides who is and who is not a “real” religion.

        I think it would be better to have lower taxes and everyone paying them.

  • Joanne Dunster

    I sent some $$. It isn’t much but I hope it helps.

  • Willa Grant

    There may be closeted pagans in town who are hoping someone helps them out of that dark space. I hope they keep it up & WIN.

  • Jan Tjeerd

    If we don’t stand for our rights to worship as we are chosen by the Gods, then the majority will have more power to stamp out all form of practice they don’t like. I agree that no churches should have tax exempt status. They use public resources and infrastructure, own property, use fire and police etc. They need to pay into it as much as everyone else does. But until they do, it is worth standing and fighting for our sacred spaces wherever they are. If we continue to let the bigots in the Abrahamic faiths run us off and out of the spaces we are as entitled to as Christians, then we will eventually have no where to go as it will only build the pattern of bigotry. Let’s stand and help this temple win the battle and establish a pattern that bigoted government cannot determine what is “approved” religion.

  • http://www.walkofthefallen.com Labrys

    The trouble is, if pagans are forced to pick battles on where to live and practice, it becomes a sort of neo-ghetto, doesn’t it? If we can only live where the Christian paradigm tells us, what will they get to tell us next about our lives?

    • Lēoht “Sceadusawol” Steren

      Many minorities come together out of a desire for community and also protection from those that are “other” to them.

      At the moment, Heathens, Pagans and other (similar) minority religions have *no* real communities.

      I think that the Amish model is not without merit.

  • marz

    Having sat through all of the prior court proceedings, this group may have to represent their selves this time. I hope they win.

  • Maureen Skaar

    some one on the town council wants that property..you wait n see..its pure hate and avarice. I’d really hate to be the one leading the battle against this religious organization, because karma is such a nasty bitch..