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.”
Along 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.”
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.