ORLANDO (AP) — A circuit court judge ruled in favor of a Christian theme park seeking nonprofit exemptions from property taxes.
The Holy Land Experience, developed by a nonprofit, nondenominational Christian ministry called Zion’s hope, had been granted only limited exemptions, those given for administrative and education facilities. The Orange County Property Appraiser’s office denied the group’s broad request in 2001, arguing the park was a tourist attraction, not a church.
In a ruling issued July 5 that Zion’s Hope attorneys didn’t receive until Monday, Judge Cynthia MacKinnon ruled all of the park was off-limits to taxation — not just the onsite administrative and education facilities already granted exemption.
“The undisputed evidence before the court is that (Zion’s Hope) is using the property to spread what it considers to be God’s word to many people at one time. This is in contrast to Disney World’s and Anheuser-Busch’s use of their properties, Epcot and Sea World, respectively, which is indisputably to make money for the companies.”
She also ruled the park’s roughly $35 admission cost didn’t preclude it being a nonprofit because museums charge admission and at least one other church has for holiday events.
MacKinnon also ruled that Orange County violated Zion’s Hope’s due process by failing to explain why it denied the exemptions. Mathew Staver, president of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel, which represents Zion’s Hope, said that could encourage other plaintiffs denied exemptions to seek future legal recourse.
Orange County Property Appraiser Bill Donegan said his office may appeal the exemption ruling.
“I think Holy Land itself is religious, but I’m not convinced that it serves a religious purpose like a church,” he said. “I guess we’re going to have to find out the definition of a church. When you charge $30 for admission, is that a church?”
Donegan said Zion’s Hope has paid only minimal taxes on the land and would owe $786,000 through February 2004 if they were forced to pay. Annual taxes would amount to about $215,000, he said.
Zion’s Hope, which is devoted to converting Jews to Christianity, opened the park in February 2001. It offers recreations of scenes from ancient Jerusalem and biblical settings complete with costumed characters. A gift shop sells books and religious-oriented gifts, and the Oasis Cafe sells food, all exempt from the state’s 6% sales tax.
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