Tax Assessment Case - 1905

Watch Tower vs. City Of Allegheny

In 1905 a case for exemption of taxes for the Watch Tower Society was decided in Watch Tower Bible And Tract Society vs. City Of Allegheny. This was because of the charitable nature and non-profit nature of the work carried out by the Society. The decision was published in the "Pittsburgh Legal Journal" of July 12th 1905 - Vol XXXV No 52. The text is shown below. The document was digitised by Google and is linked below as a .pdf file.

This is a very interesting piece of Theocratic history, and I am pleased to be able to make it available to readers on Strictly Genteel.

Court of Common Pleas No. 1,



A corporation not for profit owning real estate in a city which is used in furtherance of the purposes of the corporation in the publication of a religious paper from which no profit is derived and which is supported partly by contribution, is not liable for the city taxes assessed on its real estate as such property is used as public charity and is exempt.

In this case a portion of the building was occupied by a teanant from whom a revenue was derived. Held, that this portion was not exempt, and amount of the assessment for it should be determined by the assessors.

No. 347 June Term, 1904.


First. The plaintiff is a corporation of the first class, not for profit, under the act of April 29, 1874, and its supplements, and the purpose of its incorporation under its charter is "the dissemination of bible truths in various languages by means of the publication of tracts, pamphlets, papers and other religious documents, and by the use of all other lawful means which its board of directors, duly constituted, shall deem expedient for the furtherance of the purpose stated." The plaintiff corporation has a board of directors, which manages its business. Anyone contributing ten dollars to the association or society becomes a member of the corporation, entitled to a vote in the election of directors.

Second. The plaintiff is the owner of a lot of ground situate on Arch street of the First ward of the city of Allegheny in this county, having a front on the easterly side of said street of forty-five feet, more or less, extending back sixty feet, more or less, on which is erected a four-story brick building, occupied and used by it in the conduct of the work or business hereinafter described, except that at the time of the filing of the bill, and for some time prior thereto three of its rooms had been leased to and were occupied by a charitable organization, which there conducted a restaurant which supplied lunches to working girls and other women at a moderate price, at a rental of fifty dollars per month. This lease terminated on April 1, 1903, and at the time of the trial of this case this organization was a tenant-at-will. No other income is derived from said building, and the rent so received is used with the other income and revenues of the plaintiff in the conduct of its work and business as hereinafter specified. The entire property was donated to the corporation free of cost.

Third. The principal business of the corporation is the publication of a weekly religious paper called Zion's Watch Tower and of religious pamphlets, tracts and books, some of which are sold at a very slight profit above the cost of publication, and the sale of bibles, which are purchased by it and which are sold at less than the price usually charged by merchants; the subscription price of Zion's Watch Tower being one dollar per year. It has also sold some mottoes and similar merchandise which have been donated to it for that purpose. From all of its sales and from the paper there is no profit over and above the cost of conducting the business. In addition to its sales, a very considerable amount of its publications are given away. The persons engaged in the work receive an allowance of one hundred and twenty dollars per year, with the exception of one, who receives forty dollars per month; and those engaged in the work of publication, sale and distribution live in the building, eat at a common table supplied by the corporation and receive no other compensation except allowances for actual expenses when traveling in the interests of the society. A number of persons, and especially the president of the corporation, travel extensively from place to place holding religious meetings and acting as evangelists or missionaries, receiving only actual expenses, which are made low by reason of their being generally entertained by friends of the society. The revenues received as above mentioned are entirely consumed in the work of the society and are insufficient, and are added to by voluntary contributions, some of which are expended in the same way, and the remainder are used in the expenses of evangelists and the free distribution of literature.

Fourth. All of the publications of the corporation and books, pamphlets and papers sold or distributed by it are religious in their character, most of them, other than the bibles and bible helps, containing, in addition to general religious teaching, discussions or teachings along the line of the theological beliefs of the members of the society; but it is not a denomination or church, and has not been called by any distinctive name. Its evangelists promulgate the theological doctrines of the society, as well as preach on general religious subjects.

Fifth. The city of Allegheny has made an assessment of the real estate and premises above described and levied a tax thereon for the year 1904, and declared its purpose to collect the same as other taxes are collected.

Sixth. At the hearing of the case it was left open for further testimony, but counsel for plaintiff and defendant have since notified the court that the testimony was closed.


1. The property of the plaintiff is used in the conduct of a public charity, which is supported in part by contributions, and is exempt from taxation except for three rooms which are in actual use and occupation for other purposes and from which an income is derived.

2. The assessment made by the defendant is illegal and void, except so far as the same relates to the three rooms of the plaintiff, which are rented and occupied by a third party.

3. A decree should be entered restraining the defendant from collecting taxes upon all of plaintiff's real estate described in the bill, except three rooms which are rented to and occupied by a third party, so long as no income is derived by it from the contributors or by the corporation other than that necessary to make the charity self-sustaining, and directing the defendant to exempt from taxation said real estate with the said exception. The costs of litigation to be divided.

OPINION. Filed January 21, 1905.

The recent case of Harrisburg v. Harrisburg Academy, 26 Supr. Ct. 252 (Advance Reports for December 30, 1904,) renders an extended discussion of this case unnecessary. We are of opinion that the principles laid down in that case and in Sunday School Union v. Philadelphia. 161 Pa. 307, support the conclusions of law. This society was founded by private charity in the gift of the property occupied by it. Its revenues do not make it self-supporting in the conduct of the work done upon that property, and it appears that about eleven thousand dollars of contributions are used in the conduct of that work. The free distribution of literature and the maintenance of missionaries is supported by the remaining nineteen thousand dollars; and while the revenues and donations are together used in the conduct of both classes of work, it is clear that without these donations the work of publication would not be supported. This is not a case of carrying on a bookstore and the publication of a paper for profit.

Under the proviso of the act of May 14, 1874, P. L. 158, "that all property real or personal other than that which is in actual use and occupation for the purpose aforesaid and from which any income is derived, shall be subject to taxation, except where exempted by law for state purposes, and nothing herein contained shall exempt the same therefrom;" the portion of this building occupied by a tenant and from which a revenue is derived is not exempt. The proportion must be determined by the assessors, as has been done in a number of instances cited in the Sunday School Union case. It does not appear whether this claim was made before the assessors or whether an opportunity was given to make the exemption, so it seems fair to divide the costs of the litigation.

Let a decree be drawn as indicated in the conclusions of law.

For plaintiff, J. McF. Carpenter.

For defendant, Steephen G. Porter.

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