August 19, 2010; Source: Boston Globe | Tax collectors already have a reputation for being among the least popular people around. So a story from the Boston Globe isn’t going to do much to improve their image. The paper reports that the town of Whitman sent the local Baptist church the first tax bill it has ever received in 188 years.

While it’s bad enough that municipalities around the country are starting to tax formerly exempt groups, like religious institutions, to make up for recession-related shortfalls in revenues, what’s startling in this case is that the First Baptist Church of Whitman was forced to close a year ago because its congregation had shrunk and was no longer able to keep operating. In addition, the property has been on the market since its closing.

Apparently Whitman tax collectors got their inspiration to send the church a quarterly tax bill for $2,473 from other Boston-area towns that similarly have begun taxing closed churches. The rationale? Because the church was no longer a church, its status—in the eyes of the tax men—had reverted to a taxable asset. Whitman Town Administrator Frank Lynam said, “Simple ownership by a tax-exempt organization isn’t enough. It’s about use. And the church is not being used for worship.’’

Whether this practice will be allowed to continue now falls to the he Massachusetts Appellate Tax Board to decide. The Archdiocese of Boston has filed appeals of tax bills sent to several closed churches. Meanwhile, church leaders are wrangling with Whitman officials over their bill, due the end of this month. There are a number of reasons they say the town should not tax the church, including a moral one. Said Edward Winnett, president of First Baptist Church of Whitman Inc., “We’ve donated many, many items to the town, and we even offered them right of first refusal on our building and waited seven months for them to make a decision.’’

Just last weekend the church donated its nearly 200-year-old 2-ton bronze bell to the community. “We also donated World War II flags and hundreds of pictures, stained glass windows from the early 1900s, and other artifacts,’’ Winnett said. “A lot of those items we could have sold.’’ Maybe the Golden Rule—to treat others according to how one would like others to treat one’s self—doesn’t apply to tax collectors.—Bruce Trachtenberg