A Messianic congregation has won its appeal against the Haifa municipality which wanted to charge property taxes on the portion of the congregational building used for childcare during services.
The precedent-setting case was argued in the District Court of Haifa after Bethesda Messianic Assembly appealed the municipality’s decision to levy the property taxes, a decision was confirmed by the internal appeals board of the City.
While the city called it a daycare or nursery, the service provided by the congregation is an adjunct to the adult service and takes place at the same time.
The municipality considered it a business, but the District Court ruled in the congregation’s favor that the nursery was an inseparable part of the primary purpose at Bethesda — prayer.
“The Court emphasized that the nursery was active only during the time of prayer and that the care of the infants was handled by volunteers from the congregation, and not by someone who was paid to do so,” attorney Marvin Kramer told KNI. “It held that there was a real connection between the congregation and the nursery, which exempted having to pay arnona (municipal property tax) for that part of the property.”
The congregation gathers regularly on Wednesday and Saturday and uses a community hall upstairs for the main service, while the basement, with a separate entrance, serves as a space for childcare. Despite the separate entrances, the court did not see that as an obstacle to the tax exemption.
A municipal inspector visited the site in 2015 and reported the use of the basement, leading the city to levy property taxes. The congregation objected and appealed arguing that the basement is only used concurrently with services and should not be independently considered. The internal appeals board confirmed the decision of the City, but its decision was overturned by the District Court.
The city attempted to appeal the District Court ruling to the Supreme Court of Israel, but the high court rejected the city’s request last month.
Kramer said the ruling can be used as a precedent for other congregations.
“The judgement of the District Court in favor of Bethesda can be used as a precedent for arguing that a practical interpretation of the law, in the face of existing facts and justifiable circumstances of activities that are supportive of the primary exempt purpose, should allow for similar results for other congregations,” he said.
Haifa District Court Judge Bracha Bar-Ziv agreed with the house of prayer.
“There is no dispute that this is not business activity in all parts of the property,” Bar-Ziv said in her October ruling. “There is no dispute that the main part of the property is used for prayer or religious studies.”
“Considering the nature of the activity, its scope and its dates, I believe that the place should be considered a ‘nursery’ whose activity is not in itself but an integral part of the main activity — prayer,” Bar-Ziv said. “It operates only during the hours when there is prayer, the protection of the children is not carried out by a kindergarten teacher but by a member of the community and girls who help her, and the number of children is very limited.”