Property Tax Commission Rules Against Maharishi Spiritual Center

Mountain Times/January 6, 2001
By Jim Thompson

The Maharishi Spiritual Center has lost the second round in its bid to win a tax exemption for its property in Watauga County. At stake is almost $238,000 in property a year.

The Spiritual Center claims it should be exempt because of its educational work; Watauga County and now the North Carolina Property Tax Commission disagree.

After initially being turned down by the tax office, the Spiritual Center appealed to the county's Board of Equalization and Review. By state statute, taxpayers must go through this process if they contest the appraisal of their property or its possible exemption. On April 22, 1999, the Board of Equalization and Review determined the Spiritual Center property did not meet the requirements for exemption. Soon after, the group filed an appeal with the Property Tax Commission.

This judicial body is the next step in the appeals process. The commission has now issued its findings after lengthy testimony from both sides of the issue.

The property in question consists of 61 parcels of land totaling approximately 550 acres. This is split into western and eastern compounds, the former of which houses single men, the latter single women. These groups are called, respectively, Purushas and Mother Divines. Between these compounds is Heavenly Mountain Resort.

According to the findings of fact by the Property Tax Commission, "The members of the Purusha meditate eight hours a day, from 7 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and from 4:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. Purusha members meditate as a group in a large meditation hall. On the Spiritual Center's premises in the afternoons, the Purusha also telephone their sponsors for contributions and undertake personal businesses and/or administrative office work. This group meditation occurs each day of the year and many of the Purusha have been members since the group was formed 20 years ago." The women in the Mother Divine group, who number over 100, follow similar program. Both groups also meet for evening programs, which focus on meditation. Each member must raise at least $750 per month to continue the program. If they raise additional amounts, they are paid a stipend for personal expenses.

The findings of fact note that both groups are "experienced practitioners of Transcendental Meditation and TM-Sidhi programs. TM-Sidhi is an advanced meditation program." These courses are done for a fee, and the contents are confidential.

Clearly looking at the issue of the Spiritual Center as an educational site, the commission stated, "No information is transmitted to the Purusha and Mother Divine during their group practice; training or development of knowledge or skills is not the primary activity because the Purusha and Mother Divine are already experienced in meditation." There is no faculty, the commission found, nor does the Spiritual Center provide a course of study, grant degrees, nor is it accredited as a college or university. In addition, "Foreign members of the Purusha come to the United States on visitors' visas, not student visas." Purusha and Mother Divine members do not graduate, the commission found, "but rather may stay indefinitely."

Addressing the issue of the possibility of the Spiritual Center as meeting the scientific requirements in the statute, the commission found it has, "no laboratory, and no scientific experiments are carried on at the Spiritual Center as to the effects of meditation. Studies concerning the effects of meditation on individual practitioners, which were introduced at the hearing of this case, have been undertaken elsewhere." Even though there is a small girl's middle and high school called the Ideal Girls' School, which has approximately 28 students, it is only a small part of the overall facility. State law requires the whole of an exempt property must be used for educational, charitable, religious or scientific purposes.

The bottom line: the Property Tax Commission upheld the determination of the Watauga County Board of Equalization and Review.

Appeal? Now the ball is in the Spiritual Center's court. They will have approximately 30 days to decide whether to appeal the Property Tax Commission's decision to the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Then that court will decide whether or not to hear the appeal.

"The county is pleased at this point with the ruling," said Tax Administrator Larry McLean. At press time, he had not received word of an appeal.

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