The leaders behind a purported Orthodox Christian shrine in Marblehead have filed a lawsuit against the town, arguing the town assessed property taxes for fiscal year 2024 on a parcel that should be tax-exempt because it is used for religious purposes.
Marblehead officials will go behind closed doors on Monday morning to discuss the litigation, filed in Essex Superior Court.
“We’re going into executive session — the Select Board and assessors — to get a briefing from town counsel,” Town Administrator Thatcher Kezer told the Marblehead Current. “That’s all it is — to be fully briefed.”
Kezer added, “Town counsel is handling the situation, but they’re going to brief both boards simultaneously to keep us informed as to the proceedings.”
Kezer confirmed that the tax bill in question amounts to $2,965, assessed on the parcel at 120 Pleasant St.
The shrine and a brewery run by Bushell are co-located 124 Pleasant St., while the property in dispute at 120 Pleasant St. is a separate building next door.
On Sept. 1, Essex Superior Court Judge Kristen Buxton denied the shrine’s request for a preliminary injunction, which would have prevented the town from taxing the shrine’s property.
“Plaintiff has failed to establish either a likelihood of success on the merits or irreparable harm,” Buxton wrote.
The lawsuit against the town surfaced while the shrine’s leader, Brian Andrew Bushell and general counsel, Tracey Stockton, are facing federal fraud charges. Bushell, a Marblehead native, says he is an Orthodox Christian monk who has taken a vow of poverty and founded Marblehead Brewing Company at the Pleasant Street site.
The U.S. Attorney’s office filed a Nov. 8 motion to dismiss the criminal charges against Bushell and Stockton for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit unlawful monetary transactions, stating that dismissing the charges is “in the interests of justice.”
The two were arrested in October of 2022, accused of fabricating financial documents to secure $3.6 million in CARES Act loans, which they allegedly diverted for personal use. Stockton is representing the shrine in the tax case, while Mead, Talerman & Costa is representing the town.
According to the charging documents in the federal criminal case, Bushell controlled several Marblehead-based organizations, including an Orthodox Christian charitable foundation (St. Paul’s Foundation), a “monastic house” (Shrine of St. Nicholas the Wonderworker, Patron of Sailors, Brewers & Repentant Thieves), a purported residence for clergy (Annunciation House), a monastic brewery (Marblehead Brewing Co.) and a craft saltern (Marblehead Salt Co.).
It is through these entities that federal prosecutors allege Bushell and Stockton carried out their fraudulent activities.
Prosecutors say Stockton and Bushell used the pandemic relief funds on, among other things, $1 million of renovations to two Marblehead properties, $90,000 in audiovisual equipment, $40,000 in antique furniture, a $7,000 Goyard designer bag, $2,400 on Hermes and other luxury goods and $40,000 on a Swiss Breguet wristwatch. The pair purchased an $800,000 property, supposedly for Ukrainian refugees, but then marketed the property with a monthly rent of $4,500, prosecutors also claim.
The Shrine of St. Nicholas, which calls itself a “public monastic complex” and house of worship, acquired the property at 120 Pleasant St. in December 2020, intending to extend its religious facilities. Under state law, religious organizations are typically afforded tax exemptions for properties used for worship.
In deciding to tax the property, the town may be improperly considering the criminal charges against Bushell and Stockton, the shrine alleges.
“It is possible the town is now challenging the exemption granted to the property in view of the filing of the complaint under some sort of anticipatory repudiation theory; however, the religious status of the shrine as a monastic complex is unaffected by the complaint,” the shrine’s complaint states.
The shrine maintains its religious operations are a valid basis for its tax exemption, irrespective of its leaders’ legal woes.
The shrine argues that the town’s actions violate its constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to freedom of religion, due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment and the equivalent rights under the state constitution.
The town argues that the shrine has not substantiated its claim for a religious property exemption at 120 Pleasant St.
“The plaintiff bears the burden of proving entitlement to tax exemption,” town counsel wrote in its opposition to the preliminary injunction. “A party seeking a religious exemption under [state law] must show that the use of a given property has the dominant purpose of facilitating religious worship and exercise. The plaintiff’s submissions lack any substantial evidence of this central fact.”