Mecklenburg County tax board denies religious tax appeal on Matthews home

The house at 1201 Gifford Drive in Matthews is at the center of a property tax dispute between Mecklenburg County and a woman who claims she is a “Grand Sheik” with the Moorish Science Temple of America.
The house at 1201 Gifford Drive in Matthews is at the center of a property tax dispute between Mecklenburg County and a woman who claims she is a “Grand Sheik” with the Moorish Science Temple of America. jmcfadden@charlotteobserver.com

A brick Matthews home at the center of a property tax dispute with Mecklenburg County won’t be tax-exempt despite claims that it’s a religious temple.

The county’s Board of Equalization and Review decided Tuesday to deny Dianne Carter El’s appeal to restore a property tax exemption on a Gifford Drive home she deeded to the Moorish Science Temple of America in 2010. She maintains the home is private religious property used for worship services that draw up to 28 congregants each week.

But after hearing Carter’s arguments, board member Kathy Davis said Carter failed to prove that she is legitimately affiliated with the organization.

“She provided us with a lot of paper, but I didn’t really see a lot of proof,” Davis said.

The decision came after board members heard evidence from Carter, who claims to be a grand sheik with the Moorish Science temple. A county employee and attorney argued there’s no evidence the home meets a state law offering exemptions to properties “wholly and exclusively used for religious purposes.”

I’d like to know what authority you have to tax the property that supersedes the supreme law of the land.

Dianne Carter

Their rebuttals did little to sway Carter, who described the home in the Matthews Plantation subdivision as a safe house where 15 to 20 nomadic Moors visited over the last year to rest for days to weeks at a time.

She read excerpts from the U.S. Constitution, North Carolina Constitution and Bible, and told county officials: “Since the Earth belongs to God, you do not have authority to tax God’s property.”

In 2011, Mecklenburg County gave the home an exemption when it appeared to be used for religious purposes. The county took it away two years later when a sheriff’s deputy serving papers there told a county employee overseeing exemptions to revoke the home’s tax-exempt status, said Lisa Westmoreland, who has overseen the county’s exemptions for nearly three years.

Carter applied to renew the exemption this year. Employees visited the property in July but could find no pamphlets, signs, brochures or other evidence showing the home was used for religious purposes, Westmoreland said. She added she could not find paperwork with the N.C. Secretary of State showing that the property was affiliated with a recognized religious organization.

Carter, who said she’s an ordained minister and accountant by trade, presented paperwork showing that she is a wedding officiant, and approved as a visiting clergy member at Novant Health. She said the temple, which she joined in 2008, is not “statutory,” meaning it has no documents on file with the government, doesn’t advertise its services and doesn’t pay its bills with checks – only electronically.

Prompted by questions from board members, Carter said she did not appeal the property’s taxation in 2013 because she was the victim of “legal abuse” and “I couldn’t focus.” Carter paid up to $3,000 in taxes in 2013 and 2014.

Robert Adden, an attorney for the county, pointed to Carter’s past, explaining that she’s filed a number of lawsuits against local public and law enforcement officials. At one point, the hearing grew heated when Carter refused to answer Adden’s questions about a 2014 federal bankruptcy petition in which she claimed the house was a single-family home without mentioning its religious affiliation.

Adden read from a 13-page order by a judge who presided over a lawsuit Carter filed against the sheriff’s office, state attorney general and other public officials. In the order, the judge dismissed Carter’s complaints and called them frivolous.

Board members also questioned the county’s tactics, asking for specifics on what about the Matthews home made it ineligible for tax-exempt status in 2013. Westmoreland, who did not oversee exemptions then, said the employee acted on advice from the deputy.

Chair Bruce Miller asked if it’s common for deputies to visit a property and consider whether a property meets exemption requirements. “Normally, that’s not a typical thing,” Westmoreland said.

After the hearing, Carter, who bought the home in 1994, said she was unsure what steps she would take. Tuesday was the first time she heard of the deputy’s comments about her home, and she called them an example of the same “harassment’ she’s encountered for years.

“It makes (the county) look bad for attacking religious institutions,” she said.

Jonathan McFadden: 704-358-6045, @JmcfaddenObsGov

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