N.Y. Top Court Rules In Favor of the Maetreum of Cybele

Yesterday, the New York Court of Appeals issued its final decision in the case of the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, Inc. v. McCoy, (The Town of Catskill, N.Y.). In a unanimous decision, the court ruled in favor of the Maetreum, thereby ending a lengthy legal struggle over property tax exemption. In reaction, Rev. Cathryn Platine told The Wild Hunt, “I’m still in shock as this has consumed my life for eight years now.”

In Tuesday’s short 3-page decision, the Court of Appeals referenced the previous 2012 judgment made by Judge Richard Platkin of the state’s Supreme Court. As noted, that earlier decision rejected the Maetreum’s petition, concluding “that the religious and charitable uses of the subject property were incidental to [the Maetreum]’s primary, non-exempt use of providing affordable cooperative housing.”  The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Town of Catskill.

However, in 2013, the Appellate Division of New York’s Supreme Court “reversed [the decision] and granted the [Maetreum’s] petitions, holding that the testimony at trial by [the Maetreum]’s witnesses demonstrated that [the Maetreum] ‘uses the property primarily for its religious and charitable purposes’ and was therefore entitled to a property tax exemption…” On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals agreed, saying, “The Appellate Division properly granted the petitions.”

NY Court of AppealsAlong with Maetreum attorney Deborah Schneer, Rev. Sister Viktoria Whittaker and her husband Gary Whittaker were in attendance at the Oct. 21 hearing at the Court of Appeals in Albany. Those arguments were summarized in an article published in the Albany Times Union. After that hearing, Rev. Whittaker told the Times-Union, “If we weren’t 100 percent sincere in this, we wouldn’t be standing here today.”

In that same article published in October, Catskill lawyer Daniel G. Vincelette explained the town’s position, saying, “It’s no more than if you or I had a crucifix or Star of David in our homes. That doesn’t entitle us to the exemption.” He also noted that the legal battle has cost the town approximately “$30,000 to $35,000” but added that “The importance to the town isn’t dollars and cents. It’s precedent.”

After the release of Tuesday’s Court of Appeals decision, Rev. Platine told The Wild Hunt, “The town wanted to drive us out that is now impossible as there is no further legal action possible on their part.” With this new decision, the Maetreum has been automatically granted its property tax-exemption. However, like all other similar organizations, it will have to re-apply every year. Rev. Platine isn’t worried and explained that the process will now involve just “a simple form rather than the major 3 section multiple page one [they’ve] been forced to file every year up to now.”

While the long battle has left the organization tired and broke, Rev. Platine appeared more relieved than anything. “We won the battle,” she said enthusiastically, adding, “This will be the case cited in all future religious legal actions in the state of N.Y. That’s how important it was and it has been cited at least twice since the Appellate win already.”

The Maetreum of Cybele's building.

The Maetreum of Cybele’s building.

Rev. Whittaker echoed Platine’s statement, saying  “It was a very, very important case, not just establishing equal protection under the law for Pagans, but it also emphasized the importance of establishing and maintaining Pagan congregations in the real world.” Whittaker also emphasized the importance that her spiritual beliefs played in this journey. She said:

The Great Mother Cybele brought us to the place, made sure that we were not only able to purchase it and maintain it over the last 12 years, and also to win a lengthy and expensive court case like this.  With her support and guidance, we did what few would have thought possible.  Through Her, indeed, nothing is impossible. I truly feel that this is one of the most important things I have done with my life.

When asked what is next for The Maetreum of Cybele, Rev. Platine said, “Personally, I plan to return to my research writing and theology studies. The Maetreum will commit to get our community radio station on the air by April of next year and resume our charitable work once we get our financial feet under us again.”

The Town of Catskill informed us that it has not yet issued any public response or reaction to Tuesday’s ruling.

For more history on this case, go to our April 2014 report.

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35 thoughts on “N.Y. Top Court Rules In Favor of the Maetreum of Cybele

  1. Congratulations to the Maetreum. And superkudos to Cathryn Platine and to the Wittakers for hanging in there for so long. I hope that your recovery will be swift and that the ministry you provide blooms again.

    As for the town of Catskill, I hope they can learn from this experience that religion comes in all different forms and that it is wrong to use political power against minority faiths.

  2. Excellent! The cherry atop the sundae is that this decision has already been cited twice.

  3. This is wonderful and may make some important law in New York and perhaps the rest of the country too. (As the New York court is often cited as precident in other cases in other states and Federal Courts

    • Hopefully this will teach conservative towns, municipalities and others that they ought to leave Pagans in peace for their own (financial) good.

      • Dantes, see also my reply to Baruch below.

        I submit to you that all things being equal — and we know that is not always true — the elected and appointed officials of a town or municipality swear an oath of office to uphold and enforce the law. Suggesting that an event or outcome can or should represent a source of initimidation for them can be taken as the implied expectation that they will violate their oaths on behalf of an individual or group we support.

        I have personal acquaintance with people in power abusing it or using it arbitrarily on behalf of themselves and those they want to benefit. Forcing them to do exactly that but for people we want to benefit is insult to injury. I want them punished for violating their oaths no matter who benefits.

        • Suggesting that an event or outcome can or should represent a source of initimidation for them can be taken as the implied expectation that they will violate their oaths On the contrary, pointing out a precedent in law helps them see what is entailed in keeping their oaths.

          • We both may be picking at nits. To clarify: the next time a situation like this comes up, Catskill or any other town will examine the precedent but must proceed according to its local laws. I hope you understand that I’ve stipulated situations where the officials involved are bringing personal animus or prejudice to their decisions. That by itself, before any action they take, is a very short step short of violating their oath of office.

          • I must disagree in part. The value of precedent is not a nit and not something a prudent jurisdiction ignores because it has a statute to the contrary.I agree that personal motives in legislation are corrupt if they violate the public interest.

          • There should be a provision in law whereby public officials found to be waging legal battles from personal animus or reckless disregard for legal prudence should lose immunity and be wholly and personally liable for all of the costs and judgments that arise from such lawsuits.

  4. Now they need to go for a civil rights judgement against the town large enough that the town will have to sell the city hall to pay it.

    • Not if they want to go on living and working there. Small towns can be unforgiving. They can also be beacons of tolerance, even in places where religious freedoms were once controversial. You know you’ve made it when you become “our Witches,” or “our Heathens” to long-time residents.

      That doesn’t tend to happen to groups that lose the high road, though. I suspect the Maestreum, there to stay, is going for making it clear that their goddess is a good neighbor.

  5. Call me cynical, but I have to wonder what tactic the town of Catskill will use against the Maetreum next…

    • Pay?

      I mean, loosing 30 grands should calm them for a while and if they most certainly won’t start being huge fans of the Maetreum overnight, they’ll hopefully think twice before playing persecutors.

      • I’m not so sure.

        The Maetreum has been set up in an area that has shown itself to be very hostile to its presence for almost a decade. I have little doubt that the locals won’t find new ways to challenge them.

        • Actually, within the Hamlet of Palenville we get a LOT of support and respect as we’ve been active in the community for a long time. It is the bigots that run Catskill that have been the problem and not even most of the folks of Catskill itself.

          Also to clear up the misconceptions going around, “costs” do not include lawyer fees which has been the vast majority of the expenses. We will only get a few hundred dollars in “costs” against the 67 thousand dollars we’ve spent to date. 20 thousand alone this year to defend our Appellate level win.

          To those who misunderstand what this case has been about from the beginning, the Catskill attorney kept claiming to the press this was not about our legitimacy as a religion but every single filing he made over the years up to and including to the NY Court of Appeals claimed we were an illegitimate ‘sham’ religion.

    • The concern is justified. There are many tactics the town leaders could use to harass. I won’t name them so as not give anybody cleaver ideas, though the mischief that an angry town official can do is quite profound. Per a link on the Maetreum’s Facebook page,(http://www.thedailymail.net/news/article_8c23f41a-7086-11e4-bab7-33a9c0d75db6.html) the town supervisor who started this battle and kept it alive for eight years is mighty angry at losing (and amazingly inconsistent in his reasoning too)
      On the other hand It is heartening to see on their Facebook page that the Maetreum is already working to become an active and positive presence in their local community. Having won this battle they are now able to actually put their resources to proper use and already have plans. I have a feeling a contribution to them, in honor of their victory will go a long way.

  6. I speak only for myself here.

    This is how American justice works. It offers no room for sentiments of revenge, for implied or actual “warnings” against future actions contemplated by some civil servant or elected official facing similar circumstances. Indeed, the only lesson it offers is that we avail ourselves of the procedures of justice, we argue our cases under the laws, and we expect a rational decision from a jury and judge.

    American law is a passive construct. It doesn’t say “you can’t” or “you must not”. It says “if you do, these are the possible consequences” and it leaves every individual case up to the system to administer and decide.

    I am not a lawyer. I am a citizen who takes his obligations to that system seriously. I listen and watch. I ask questions and pay attention to the answers. I’ve sat on several juries, criminal and civil, and I have this opinion about the system: It works as well as the level of our commitment to it is made.

    When we offer healing energy, we offer it to the best outcome. We don’t cast our energy against the broken bone, the cancerous cells or the loss of an organ. We give ourselves to the healing power of the person in need. In like manner, I honor the efforts and energy of our friends at the Maetreum. I applaud their outcome, but I do not look at it as anything but the best outcome they could hope for. Another day will bring another group, another town or city, and another case. It becomes new, it will have differences, and it will challenge us to find the truth of the matter on its own merits and not because it looks like what happened with the Maetreum.

    Consider with me the utter and complete appropriateness of Blind Justice. Her scales are not held out to us to move and adjust to our desires. It is held up for all to see how it settles.

    • American justice…offers no room…for implied or actual “warnings” against future actions contemplated by some civil servant or elected official facing similar circumstances.Actually, it does offer such warnings. A decision like this sets a precedent within the jurisdiction of the court that issued it. That civil servant or elected official will, in the course of events, receive that warning from his or her law director. Whether the heed it is, of course, another matter.

      • Precedent remains controversial, if rather quietly. I remind everyone of my caveat of not being a lawyer, but the use of precedent (according to those who are supposed to be experts) is as advice to the arguments of the current case, not as a justification (or excuse) to rule according to the precedent. Every case on its own merits is the standard. I’ll hasten to concede that the track record for this standard in America is far from perfect.

        My quip about “warnings” was a reaction to a post by dantes. Dantes, I apologize for being passive-aggressive in my reaction rather than posting a direct reply. No offense intended.

        • There is no contradiction between deciding each case on its merits and heeding precedent. That decision includes the consideration, “What precedents apply?” Flagrantly ignoring a precedent when advised to the contrary may, in the long run, weigh against the party taking that course.

  7. Congratulations. I am very pleased with the outcome and wish the Maetreum all the best on their future endeavors.

  8. From the Daily Mail newspaper on Thursday…

    Catskill Town Supervisor Joseph Leggio noted the court’s decision has been made, adding, “It is what it is.” “They’re tax exempt,” Leggio said, “and now the rest of the town has to foot the bill (for their former share of the tax base).” Leggio noted that town services, such as ambulance, fire protection and snow plowing still have to be delivered. “Isn’t it tax dollars that support those services,” he said, “so they’re available to all the taxpayers?” “So why do we have to give free services out to a handful of people because of their religious belief?” he said. “I’m just thoroughly disgusted that less and less people are having to pay for more and more services,” Leggio said. “It’s just economically unfair.”

    Mr. Leggio is only looking at $money$ as a legitimate contribution to the town. He is overlooking the value of that religious organizations provide to the community in promoting good will, providing for the spiritual needs of residents, helping the poor and doing other acts of charity in the town.

    I wonder if he wants to revoke the tax exempt status of all the town’s religious centers including Christian churches? The Christians just might side with the Maetrium if it came to losing their tax exempt status, as suggested by Mr. Leggo.

    • I will say that my own small Quaker meeting makes an annual voluntary payment “in lieu of taxes.” While it’s not possible for a town to tax a religious organization, it is possible for such an organization to contribute financially to the town, and some do.

      Mind you, I think the Maestreum’s share can be fairly said to have been spent in advance, on legal fees that ought not to have been necessary.

    • It would be *very* interesting if Mr. Leggio believed that all religious denominations had to pay taxes.

      Somehow, I do not think that is likely, though.

    • Well, gee. Mr. Leggio, isn’t that going to happen every time a tax-exempt institution sets up in your town, that the “rest of the town has to foot the bill” for any taxes they might have contributed?