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AGO 1958 No. 208 - July 01, 1958
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John J. O'Connell | 1957-1968 | Attorney General of Washington



Property used by a nonprofit corporation for educational, benevolent, protective, or social departments of the association may claim the statutory exemption from county real estate tax under RCW 84.36.030.

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                                                                     July 1, 1958

Honorable Arnold R. Zempel
Prosecuting Attorney
Snohomish County
Everett, Washington                                                                                    Cite as:  AGO 57-58 No. 208

Dear Sir:

            This is in answer to your request for the advice of this office on a question which we paraphrase as follows:

            May the Sisters of St. Dominic, a nonprofit corporation, claim the statutory exemption from county real estate taxes under RCW 84.36.030?

            We answer your question in the affirmative.


            As we understand the facts presented by your legal question, the corporation in question is nonprofit and its purpose is for the establishment and maintenance of hospitals for the care of the sick and injured and for the establishment and operation of schools for educational purposes.  The property in question is a residence located in the southern part of Snohomish County which is referred to as a Mother Home and residents therein are Dominican Sisters who serve in the hospitals and teach in the schools established by the corporation.

            The pertinent statute to which you refer is as follows:

            RCW 84.36.030:

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            "The following property shall be exempt from taxation:

            "Property of nonsectarian organizations or associations, organized and conducted primarily and chiefly for religious purposes and not for profit, which shall be used, or to the extent solely used, for the religious purposes of such associations, or for the educational, benevolent, protective, or social departments growing out of, or related to, the religious work of such associations;"

            In the case ofNorwegian Lutheran Church v. Wooster, 176 Wash. 581, 588, our supreme court has interpreted the word "nonsectarian" as used in RCW 84.36.030 as follows:

            "As we read the statute, it first exempts churches as such, and it was undoubtedly the legislative intent to exempt all churches without regard to denomination or sect.  Realizing that churches usually are sectarian organizations, but that nonsectarian organizations might also exist and carry on religious work with educational, benevolent, protective and social adjuncts, the act provides that their property so used shall likewise be exempted.

            "As we see it, sectarianism has, therefore, nothing to do with the question here involved.  Whether the owner be sectarian or nonsectarian, the use to which the property is devoted determines the question of exemption from taxation."

            In an annotation in 15 A.L.R. 2d, page 1064, an analysis is made of the cases which have been decided by the courts of the various states involving the question of whether property used by personnel as living quarters or for recreational purposes are within the contemplated tax exemptions extended to property of religious, educational, charitable, or hospital organizations.  The cases cited in that annotation are by no means consistent or uniform.  The statutes in question are not generally the same and the factual burden of the cases varies widely.  However, it can be stated as a general rule that those courts which refuse to include property used for dwelling or recreational purposes by personnel as being entitled to the general statutory exemption of property of such organizations, base the rulings upon the rule that such statutes require strict construction.  In addition, the annotation in 15 A.L.R. 2d, supra, clearly points out that most of the statutes which have been strictly construed are more limited and restrictive in their terminology than is the Washington statute.  For example,  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] statutes are ordinarily strictly construed in which the language exempting property is "used exclusively for public worship."

            On the other hand, where the statutes use the terminology "property used exclusively for religious purposes" the residential facilities are more likely to be accorded the statutory tax exemption.  In those states which have held such property to be exempt, the opinions ordinarily state that the particular facility was necessary to the efficient operation of the organization claiming the exemption.  Among the states which have allowed the exemption of housing facilities for personnel are California, Georgia, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

            Cooley discusses the meaning of the strict construction rule cited by our court in the early case ofThurston County v. Sisters of Charity of the House of Providence 14 Wash. 264 as follows:

            "When it is said that exemptions must be strictly construed in favor of the taxing power, this does not mean that if there is a possibility of a doubt it is to be at once resolved against the exemption.  It simply means that if, after the application of all rules of interpretation for the purpose of ascertaining the intention of the legislature, a well founded doubt exists, then an ambiguity occurs which may be settled by the rule of strict construction.  The rule of strict construction does not relieve the court of the duty of interpreting the exemption by the ordinary rules of construction in order to carry out the intention of the legislature, and does not apply where there is no language in the act justifying or requiring construction.  A fair and reasonable construction of the statute or contract must always be adopted, giving the language used its ordinary meaning, and taking into consideration the purpose and spirit of the exemption as well as the public policy entertained at the time and the history of the times when the statute was passed.  Strict construction does not require that the narrowest possible meaning be given to words descriptive of the exemption. . . ." (§ 674)

            Thus, the rule of strict construction is not applicable unless there is an ambiguity in the statute rendering the exemption doubtful.  No such ambiguity exists in the present instance, inasmuch as our statute specifically exempts property usedfor the educational, benevolent, protective, or social departments growing out of, or related to, the religious work of such associations.

            In the present instance, it is clear that the property in question is both necessary to, and used as an adjunct to, the hospitals and schools operated by the Sisters  [[Orig. Op. Page 4]] of St. Dominic and grow out of and are related to the religious work of the association.  Accordingly, it is the opinion of this office that the property known as the Mother Home of the Sisters of St. Dominic comes within the provisions of the statutory exemption found in RCW 84.36.030.

            This opinion is consistent with previous opinions issued by this office which have interpreted the same statute.  See opinion issued on March 31, 1927, to the State Tax Commission (No. 1780) [[1927-28 OAG 44]]; opinion dated April 22, 1952, to the prosecuting attorney of Whatcom county (AGO 51-53-288); opinion dated May 1, 1952, to the prosecuting attorney of Thurston county (AGO 51-53-295); opinion dated March 24, 1954, to the prosecuting attorney of Spokane county (AGO 53-55 No. 229); and opinion to State Representative Mel T. Neal, dated March 11, 1955 (AGO 55-57 No. 38).

            We trust the foregoing will be of assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

Attorney General

Assistant Attorney General

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