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Due Unto Others

More than $5 billion worth of property in this state is exempt from taxation but still receives the services that every other piece of property does. Since you--the upstanding and law-abiding Colorado taxpayer--are bankrolling police and fire protection for these properties, you deserve to ask a few questions. Such as:

* How many cracked backs equal a tax break?
* If your mother is a saint (no, really), how much of a tax reprieve do you deserve?

* Are Coloradans subsidizing Michael Jordan?
* For tax calculation purposes, what is the definition of the word "earshot"?

* How is it possible to invite business executives to your fancy office building, charge them thousands of dollars to tell them how to be better business executives--and still end up with a property-tax bill of zero?

Colorado is not alone in granting property-tax breaks. Recognizing the benefit of moral and spiritual guidance, most states exempt churches and synagogues from paying property taxes. Nonprofit hospitals and other health-care facilities, along with certain charities, generally don't pay taxes on their property. Neither do veterans' organizations, which are given a break on their tax bill in exchange for their members' service to their country.

Other organizations receive a tax-free ride because they happen to be in Colorado. Amateur athletic groups headquartered in this state--USA Team Handball Federation, USA Field Hockey--don't pay property taxes. Neither do nonprofit community-corrections corporations, which provide counseling services and halfway houses for prison inmates.

Many of these organizations have enjoyed their tax-free ride for a long time. This year, however, they are being challenged. Amendment 11, which voters will see on the November 5 ballot, aims to force many groups that aren't paying property taxes to start. This list includes St. Mary's Catholic Church, Lutheran Hospital and the Boy Scouts of America. The only businesses that would be excluded from the law are those that provide housing for the elderly and homeless, as well as schools and orphanages.

The stakes of such a new law are enormous. For starters, property owners who have been enjoying a tax bill of zero would have to begin writing big checks. In Colorado Springs, the yearly property tax tab for Focus on the Family, the conservative Christian ministry, would zoom from nothing to $600,000. The new expense, some charities say, would force them to cut back on services.

Opponents of the amendment also worry about what its passage could mean for the rest of the country. Amendment 11, which is being pushed by a Colorado Springs lawyer and lapsed Catholic named John Patrick Michael Murphy, is the first proposal to tax religions and charities. If it were to pass here, tax activists in other states might gain enough confidence to try it elsewhere.

Amendment 11's supporters argue that excusing some property owners from taxes makes everyone else's bill unfairly higher. But each year, tax-exempt organizations must reapply to the state Division of Property Taxation and make the case that, in exchange for us covering their tax bill, they are doing something for us.

Once in a while, properties are judged not to have earned their keep; they are returned to the tax rolls and asked to pay like everyone else. More often the opposite occurs, and additional properties are tacked onto the list of tax-free land. (One reason for this is that politicians have been charitable when it comes to creating brand-new tax breaks, which they have done at least three times in recent years.)

The sheer number of organizations that don't pay property taxes--9,200 in Colorado--might give the impression that gaining an exemption is a breeze. But the lucrative breaks are not given up willy-nilly, and the state's property-taxation department attempts to rigorously screen for undeserving people who want to skip their tax bill.

Ginger Chase, Douglas County assessor, recalls that several years back the state denied an exemption to a man who claimed his house was a church. "Basically, he was having some guests over on Sunday mornings," she remembers. "They would look out the window. And he demanded a religious exemption." It was denied.

Yet deciding whether an organization's property deserves tax-free status is not always black and white, and state examiners must make dozens of judgment calls. Many of them turn on the small nuances of big questions and result in razor-thin distinctions that can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What is charity?
Think that all Colorado charities enjoying a property-tax exemption exist to help the needy? Just how needy is your boss?

The Center for Creative Leadership is located just west of Colorado Springs (on a street called Leader Way). Its three-year-old office building is described by state tax inspectors as "a stylish glass-and-brick structure built halfway up a hillside on sixty-plus acres of land."  

"We have a great view!" a receptionist there raves.
The Center for Creative Leadership was founded in North Carolina in 1970; today it operates branches in San Diego, Brussels, Belgium and Colorado Springs. Its leadership programs are aimed at managers and executives, whom it claims to make better managers and executives. The seminars are open to the public (for a fee), or the center will tailor programs for a specific company's needs.

CCL applied for its tax break in 1992. The state had questions.
For one thing, the inspector visiting the center noted the relative success already enjoyed by the people who attended seminars--mostly mid-career business executives. Were they really charity cases?

He also noted that the state's definition of a charity involves making a gift of some kind to the community, and he wondered what CCL's gift might be. "How the Center for Creative Leadership does this is unclear," the inspector mused. "When courses can cost as much as $7,000, the concept of 'gift' is something that needs to be addressed."

And while the inspector conceded that the organization had granted scholarships of nearly $500,000 the previous year, he remained troubled. "While that might seem like a hearty sum," he wrote, "it is less than 2 percent of the $26,779,000 they took in from tuition and fees."

Still, CCL had some things in its favor. The center does keep its library open to the public. It also donates training to local nonprofit executives. And there was that letter from Colorado's Speaker of the House, Chuck Berry.

"I am writing in support of an application for exemption made by the Center for Creative Leadership for a parcel of property located in my House District in Colorado Springs," the legislator wrote in July 1992 to Mary Huddleston, the state's property-tax administrator. "Please advise me of your decision on this matter."

Finally, CCL had history on its side. A decade earlier, another wealthy institute whose programs benefited mostly the well-to-do had fought a similar tax battle--and won.

In 1982 the Aspen Institute for Humanistic Studies requested a property-tax exemption for its then-newest facility, in Saguache County, in the shadows of the majestic Sangre de Cristo mountains. The 6.2 acres of land and the buildings on it were worth $527,000.

The state sent its investigator in July 1982. She seemed particularly drawn to the institute's plush surroundings and trappings of wealth. Stemmed glassware. A $255,000 art collection. Specially designed hexagonal conference centers. A music ensemble whose musicians played on a Stradivarius violin and a $40,000 Bosendorfer piano shipped in specially from Denver. Recreational facilities including a sixty-foot swimming pool.

Noting that the core activity of the institute was executive seminars "designed for corporate leaders," that most of the participants were not Colorado residents (and, moreover, that they were plucked from a very select group) and that courses cost up to $4,000, the examiner recommended the Aspen Institute's application be denied, which it was.

The institute appealed. After hearing testimony from a number of high-powered seminar attendees (including two judges, one of them federal, and a local bank president) about the community value of the Aspen Institute, the state Board of Assessment Appeals reversed the taxation department's ruling and judged the institute worthy of a tax break.

All of which was to the benefit of the Center for Creative Leadership ten years later. Observing the similarities between the Aspen Institute and the CCL--expensive professional seminars, for instance--the state inspector evaluating the center in 1992 concluded: "It appears that the Center for Creative Leadership is in at least as good of a position to claim charity and should be exempt as well."

In 1993 CCL received a tax break for all the personal property in the building (the edifice and land get another tax break through a charitable foundation founded solely to hold land for the organization). The tax-free property includes exercise machines, which the center maintains are an integral part of its leadership training. In all, the exempt property is valued at about $1 million.

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Nonprofit hospitals are by far the largest recipient of the charity-based property-tax exemption. In Colorado, $1.25 billion worth of land and property is untaxed because it is used for health care. (In hospital-rich Denver County alone, the amount is $480 million.)

The reason nonprofit hospitals receive a tax break and for-profit hospitals don't is that the nonprofits are presumed to provide some amount of community service, usually discounted or free medical care. Yet in order to remain competitive, nonprofit hospitals have been forced to act more and more like their for-profit cousins. (Some "charity" hospitals actually provide less charity than for-profit facilities. PorterCare Hospital, a Denver nonprofit, claimed it gave 2 percent of its services in free care last year. North Suburban Medical Center in Thornton, which is for-profit, said 2.7 percent of its business was charity work.)  

Tax-exempt hospitals also are becoming more creative in how they keep their books. At times, that can gray the boundary between what ought to be taxed and what should be subsidized. Consider Lutheran Medical Center.

Two years ago Lutheran, which is nonprofit, purchased several privately owned office buildings adjacent to the Wheat Ridge hospital. Arguing that they now were owned by a nonprofit business, Lutheran asked that the offices be taken off the tax rolls. (The former owners had paid about $200,000 a year in property taxes.) The state agreed.

The decision enraged Jefferson County assessor Judy Pettit. Pointing out that the offices earned the hospital nearly $2 million in rent from private doctors--mostly specialists--who had nothing to do with Lutheran's charitable mission, she appealed the case. Recently the Board of Assessment Appeals threw it out, ruling that, as assessor, Pettit had no standing to bring the appeal.

She is considering taking another run at Lutheran. "We've got 159 other medical office buildings in this county which are occupied by the same kind of doctors, who see the same kind of patients, that are taxed," she says. "It doesn't seem right that these people aren't paying."

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Hospitals (and leadership training institutes) are just the big-ticket tax-free items. State regulators frequently weigh an organization's charitable contributions on smaller scales--occasionally, right down to the number of spinal adjustments.

In 1986 a Fort Collins nonprofit organization called the Christian Chiropractors Association applied to have $15,500 worth of personal property declared tax-free because CCA is a charity. According to its mission statement, the association exists "to band together in Christian fellowship professional doctors and to encourage them in proclaiming Christ at every opportunity." It also grants scholarships and encourages Christian chiropractors to perform missionary service.

The state property-taxation division denied the association's request. Pointing to a Colorado law that said a charitable organization had to substantially benefit state residents in order to enjoy property-tax relief (the law was changed in 1990), administrators noted that the chiropractors did almost nothing for Coloradans, concentrating instead on national administrative chores.

The Christian Chiropractors Association appealed and won. The clinching evidence that the association was helping enough local people to justify a charitable tax break? Its members adjusted, at no cost, 250 backs at a Salvation Army homeless shelter. CCA retains its tax exemption.

Other measurements of charity can be even more vague. Take, for example, the Ken-Caryl Ranch Foundation, named after the exclusive and expensive foothills development southwest of Denver.

The foundation, which enjoys tax-free land holdings worth more than $1 million, describes itself as "a philanthropic organization dedicated to encourage the Ken-Caryl Ranch Community to develop and acquire public recreation, open space and cultural facilities for all to enjoy." One of the ways it does this is to lease the 900-acre "hogback" running between C-470 and the development to the Ken-Caryl Metropolitan District for $1.

As befits a charity, the district in theory manages the land as open space for everyone. Yet, as a state inspector observed when visiting the property last summer, "In driving around the property, I was unable to tell where anyone could get access to this tract...It seemed difficult to actually get on the property."

In his report, the inspector also wondered "whether this holding benefits only the members of the Ken-Caryl Ranch subdivision." He concluded that while the locals were more likely to use the land, it was technically open to the public and thus "available to an indefinite number of persons."

Yet would-be hikers who don't happen to reside in Ken-Caryl Ranch will have to be awfully persistent. Unlike, say, county-owned open-space parks, there are no signs directing recreationists to the Ken-Caryl park. In fact, the first thing a visitor is likely to notice when entering the development is a trailhead leading off into inviting open fields--but marked by a bright orange sign that says, "Open to Ken-Caryl Ranch residents only."

The public park, for which the foundation receives its tax break, is on the other side of the highway and is accessible only when leaving Ken-Caryl Ranch. There is no parking lot, and the trails begin over a rise. "It does seem as though nobody knows about this," agreed the sole hiker using the hogback on a recent weekend. "Please don't tell anyone."

What is religion?
Ever heard of Rose Arveson Simmons? Her daughter would like to tell you about her. In fact, spreading the word of her sainted mother is the Colorado Springs accountant's personal mission, and she receives a religious tax break for it.  

When Rose Arveson Simmons died in 1963, according to her daughter's application for a property-tax break sixteen years later, "a number of events thought to be miraculous, and having to do with healings, etc., occurred." In October 1988 the Mercian Rite Catholic Church investigated the miracles and found them compelling enough to beatify Simmons.

The Rose Arveson Simmons Shrine is situated in a quiet Colorado Springs neighborhood. It consists of three parcels of land and can be identified by the large wrought-iron arch that says "Saint Rose E. Arveson Shrine." It boasts a large garden area with a statue of Christ and an outdoor memorial. Dorothy Arveson, Rose's daughter, lives there, in the same house where her mother lived. She also runs her accounting business from the property.

A storage building is used to house roses which, according to an inspection of the property, "are bought, blessed, dried and distributed at no charge to individuals throughout the world. The flowers are thought to be endowed with healing powers." As evidence, Dorothy Arveson keeps a large packet of letters from recipients who claim to have been healed by their contact with the flowers. The roses are said to last indefinitely.

Arveson will deliver a lecture on her mother, "Little Saint Rose," at any hour. The shrine is open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Its purpose, according to the religious mission written by Dorothy, "is to promote the love for God. The shrine is considered miraculous by many, and many miracles have occurred by the intercession of Saint Rose to God. Healings by the thousands have occurred."

In 1989 Dorothy Arveson applied for a religious exemption. The state granted it for 42 percent of the land's value, or about $28,000.

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When arguing against Amendment 11, religious organizations have made much of the good works they deliver to the community--the missions they run, the blankets they donate. In fact, the level of charity work and good deeds varies widely from church to church. And there is no distinction made (for tax-exemption purposes, anyway) between the community service performed for the benefit of the Five Points community or for the affluent residents of high-priced suburban subdivisions.

Forty-five minutes' drive north of the Saint Rose E. Arveson Shrine is a far grander monument to God. The Cherry Hills Community Church, in Douglas County, sits on 39 glorious acres.

The congregation moved to the new site last year from its old one on Colorado Boulevard. "Highlands Ranch is a growing area," explains Dutch Franz, the church's executive director. "The fields were white for harvest. We felt like God was calling us."

God's calling had a price, and the new church and its land are valued at over $12 million. Fortunately, Cherry Hills, a member of the Evangelical Presbyterian denomination, ministers to one of the more prosperous congregations in the Denver area; the church's yearly budget is $5 million. One-fifth of that goes to service its $15 million debt. The complex also houses a preschool and the K-8 Cherry Hills Christian School. Both of those, however, are self-supporting through tuition and fees.

Franz says Cherry Hills Community Church provides plenty of charity to the neighborhood. This ranges from free meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas to the church's Manna Ministry, which gives free food, clothing and haircuts to needy members of the community--who Franz swears exist, even in tony Highlands Ranch. "People experiencing job loss and so on; the need is great," he says.

Whether or not Cherry Hills's charity work in the southern metro suburbs is worth the $360,000 annual property-tax break the church receives is open to debate--but only in theory. As far as Colorado's laws are concerned, religious organizations technically don't have to perform any charity to receive their tax break. They can even earn money.

"Exquisite vegetarian meals, spectacular views, hot tubs and saunas!" exclaims a resident of the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat, in Gilpin County. "It really is a lovely place!"

World-weary visitors to the retreat can choose relaxing package deals that include facials, foot massages and meditation and yoga classes. A one-day spa retreat costs $64; weekend "rejuvenation" packages are available from $220 and can cost more if you choose to stay in one of the rustic (though heated) cabins with king-sized beds.

Guests also have access to the complex's 210 beautiful acres. There are miles of scenic trails that wind through the woods, including one that leads to the nearby 8,500-foot Rollins Peak.

Scan any list of Colorado's most relaxing spas and there is a good chance it will include a reference to the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat. What the brochures won't mention is that the facility enjoys a tax exemption on its $365,000 worth of land outside Nederland.  

The property is owned by an organization called SGRY of Colorado, whose members practice Buddhism. In addition to selling its rejuvenation packages, the Shoshoni facility is used as a camp and retreat for SGRY members. (The organization also enjoys a tax break on a small "mini-temple" in Boulder County worth $48,500.)

SGRY is exempt from paying property taxes on the entire two-hundred-plus acres of the Shoshoni retreat, and not just those portions that are actually used for worship. Here's why:

For many years practitioners of the Buddhist religion, in particular, have enjoyed tax breaks on huge tracts of land because they say it is required for their form of worship. It fact, the exact amount of land necessary has been measured.

"As the amount of land being considered in the application is quite large, I inquired as to the need for all of the acreage," the state's inspector reported after his visit to the Shoshoni Yoga Retreat in 1989.

"In order to practice meditation," a spokeswoman for the retreat responded, "the following is required: Detachment from world involvement requires the solitude only achieved by dwelling in cremation grounds, a jungle, or other lonely place out of earshot. Earshot has been defined as a distance equal to 1 1/8 mile."

"Therefore," the inspector concluded, "while the amount of land might be unusual for a Christian church, in order for these members to practice their meditation, it is necessary for them to be able to attain this kind of detachment."

The Shoshoni Yoga Retreat is not the only Buddhist organization to have collected huge, tax-exempt parcels of land for the solitary worship required by the faith. One of the larger religious landholders in Colorado is an organization called Vajradhatu.

Based in Boulder, where it holds over a million dollars' worth of tax-free property, Vajradhatu has accumulated land used for lonely meditation in two other counties as well. Its several-hundred-acre compound in Larimer County is valued at just under $1 million; another 400-acre tract, valued at $122,000, lies in northwestern Huerfano County. All of it is tax-exempt.

Although tax break for big hunks of real estate have been used primarily by Eastern religions, Christian groups, too, have begun enjoying tax breaks on their acreage. It began in a small way, in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood.

By 1987, the Reverend Luther Johnson had been tending the flock at Our Savior's Lutheran Church for five years. The church, located on Emerson Street at Ninth Avenue, has been in existence since 1881.

"For years, in addition to holding services, Our Savior's has functioned as a community service center," Johnson explains, "hosting and sheltering nonprofit groups, whose goals we support and which are complimentary to our own."

Consequently, the reverend saw nothing odd in applying to the state for a tax exemption on the entire church property, even though some of its offices were rented out to secular organizations such as Amnesty International; National Namibia Concerns, which supported the African country's struggle for independence; and Norsemen of the Rockies, a Norwegian social club.

State tax bureaucrats, however, determined that such worldly groups did not qualify for a property-tax break: Colorado's law exempted property used only for "religious worship." Johnson fought back, contending the secular groups favored peace and justice, sentiments supported by Our Savior's Lutheran. The Board of Assessment Appeals agreed.

In 1989, largely because of the case, Colorado lawmakers rewrote the religious-exemption law. Now in order to qualify for a tax break, a religious organization need only prove its property is used for "religious purposes"--a far broader and more inclusive definition than "worship."

As a result, says Susan Whitfield, the Division of Property Taxation's manager for exemptions, it is now virtually impossible to argue with a religious organization claiming that something under its roof is related to its philosophical purpose. "How can you know what is inside someone's head?" she wonders. "If a church were to rent its offices out to 7-Eleven, that would be one thing. But anything else is going to be open to question."

One of the first organizations to take advantage of the looser law was the Navigators, a forty-year-old evangelical Christian organization based in Colorado Springs whose holdings include a sprawling retreat and conference center in El Paso County's foothills. Now worth more than $7 million, the land was used as a fort when the area was settled.

When it first applied for tax-exempt status for the land, in 1985, Navigators had to struggle to win the exemption. Because the center was not technically used for "religious worship," the land had to qualify as property used for charitable purposes--a more difficult standard.  

When the owners of the Christian conference center reapplied for tax-exempt status in 1990, thanks to the new law, their job was considerably easier. In fact, when the state inspector interviewed a representative of the center, "she revealed that they have filed this application solely to take advantage of" the new standards. Now the land enjoys a religious exemption, despite occasional use by such groups as the Taiwan International Leadership Team and the Republican Women of Colorado Springs.

How else may we help you?
Politics often is at the heart of who receives a tax break and who does not. In recent years lawmakers have created three special categories for organizations seeking property tax relief.

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Community Corrections: For many years, Colorado prisoners who were getting ready for parole or life on the outs were transferred to halfway houses or drug treatment centers. All this was part of the state's parole department.

Several years ago, though, facing a crush of inmates, a separate Community Corrections division was formed. The division contracts with private companies to house and treat soon-to-be-free prisoners. Today there are two dozen such facilities that collect a base fee of around $40 per day per inmate from the state.

When the private community-corrections companies first began applying for tax breaks, in the mid-1980s, the state granted them. Starting in 1989, however, after revisiting the idea, the Division of Property Taxation changed its mind and revoked the exemptions. One of the larger companies that was denied was a Colorado Springs corporation called Comcor, Inc.

Although Comcor is a nonprofit company that was undoubtedly providing an important service, Whitfield, the state's exemptions manager, explains that, in her opinion, it still didn't deserve a tax break. "We simply didn't feel they were charitable," she says. "They appeared to be like any other fee-for-service operation. They charge the state or some other government X number of dollars per day per client."

Where, she wondered, was the charity in that? Also, she points out, "they had a very healthy financial statement."

Comcor was undeterred. The company went to the legislature and pointed toward that part of the state law that says an organization can skip its tax bill if it "lessens the burden of government," which, the company argued, it was doing. Lawmakers agreed, and beginning in 1993, nonprofit community-correction companies in Colorado began enjoying their very own tax break. (In all, $750,000 worth of community-corrections property is exempt.)

Nicki Moore, a spokeswoman for Comcor, which now possesses an exemption on $275,000 worth of property, explains her company's role in the law change: "There was some legislation that had some gaps in it. Our lawyers participated at the legislature, and it was changed."

Even if Amendment 11 passes, community-corrections companies will keep their tax breaks.

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Amateur sports organizations: Colorado Springs has made an effort to attract a multitude of nonprofit organizations to the area as an economic tool. Numerous religious groups have moved their headquarters there in recent years.

Another type of business that has been wooed to the area is amateur athletic organizations, attracted by the beautiful surroundings and the presence of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. In the late 1980s several of these groups applied for tax exemptions and were denied.

The reason was a forty-year-old reading of Colorado's law, which stated that in order for state taxpayers to subsidize an organization's tax break, the organization had to primarily benefit the citizens of Colorado. State tax examiners ruled that groups such as USA Team Handball did not.

This displeased Colorado Springs officials, who saw the law as a threat to the trouble they'd gone to to attract the sports organizations. So in 1990 they pushed for a rewriting of the tax law to ensure that it would no longer restrict tax breaks to companies that mainly helped out state residents. The state legislature was convinced and changed the law. Just to make certain, the lawmakers also added to Colorado's tax laws a special provision that exempted certain national and international amateur athletic organizations from paying property taxes.

Not surprisingly, El Paso County taxpayers are now subsidizing the bulk of the state's amateur athletic organizations. Of the $43.7 million worth of tax-exempt property in this category, $42.7 million of it is in or around Colorado Springs.

In the case of USA Basketball, it can be argued that the new laws have resulted in some strange subsidies. The association, which is housed in a $580,000 tax-free office building in Colorado Springs, is the designated governing body of basketball in this country, from high school to the National Basketball Association. But by far, its two main events are fielding national teams for the Olympics and the World Championships, both of which are held every four years.  

Since 1992, however, these national teams have been manned by National Basketball Association professionals--Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal--who together earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year. So why does USA Basketball still need a tax break?

"Security costs are much higher with professional athletes," points out Craig Miller, a spokesman for the organization. "And then you've got insurance. These players are worth millions and millions of dollars. If Michael Jordan had blown his knee out in 1992 during the Olympics, who would have paid for that?"

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Fraternal organizations: The Elks, the Eagles and the Loyal Order of Moose, among others, make a big deal about how much charity work and community service they provide. And for many years they received tax relief on that basis. But in the mid-1980s, Whitfield recalls, her department decided to take a closer look.

"We got to looking at them, and we believed that there was considerable change in the way these organizations operated today as opposed to the way they operated in the 1930s and '40s," she recalls. "It seemed that, back then, they did more in the way of providing charity to their members and others. But since that time, much of the work they did has been picked up by the government."

After the Division of Property Taxation did some digging, it concluded that some of the organizations--a Moose lodge in Loveland, for one--seemed to resemble social clubs more than they did charitable organizations. Several of the lodges that had become accustomed to a tax exemption were denied.

So the frats went to the State Capitol and rounded up some friends. In 1987, SB 40, sponsored by then-state senator Wayne Allard, granted fraternal organizations their very own tax-exemption category. Since then, the Masons, the Moose and the Elks have been relieved of the sticky business of proving to the state that they are charitable. They are simply presumed to be.


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