The grand old Bossert Hotel on the corner ofMontague and Hicks Streets, is, as Jehovah's Witnesses might say,in Brooklyn Heights but not of it.
Seen from the outside, which is the only way an ordinary mortalcan see it now, the physical hotel exudes the patrician eleganceof the most expensive parts of the neighborhood. The woodworkis lovingly waxed, the brass is shiny, everything is perfectlymaintained.
But the human goings-on are quite another story. Neatly dressedyoung men and women, apple-pie American rather than patrician,hover around not only as residents of the hotel but also as itsdelivery personnel and maintenance crew. Others come from theneighboring Jehovah's Witness plant on Furman Street to lunchand to dine in the basement communal restaurant. This dining hallis the only feature of today's Bossert that can easily be observedby passers-by, through the basement windows on Hicks Street. TheBossert is no longer a public hotel; it is a private preserveof the Witnesses, also known as the Watchtower Bible and TractSociety, part of the group's very considerable real estate holdingsin Brooklyn Heights.
The Witnesses established their first foothold here in 1909, whenCharles Taze Russell, their founder, moved the headquarters fromPennsylvania. But their massive Heights presence began after theSecond World War. From time to time there was neighborhood oppositionto them, notably when they displaced older residents along ColumbiaHeights to make room for their ever-expanding dormitories. Oppositionwas also caused by the rigorous economic self-sufficiency of theWitnesses. Their food is brought in from their own farms, theirmaintenance is performed by their own craftsmen; they cannot besaid to benefit the local economy.
At one time, about twenty years ago, a local florist on MontagueStreet expressed his displeasure by placing a sign in his shopwindow :
The Jehovah's Witnesses ... embark upon a program of using their tax-free millions to swallow up building after building until they own a major portion of the Heights ... and contribute nothing to the life of the community except for destroying lovely old brownstone houses and erecting ugly, modern structures.
The map of thirty-six properties listed inthe name of the Watchtower Bible & Tract Society in the Heightsderives from city records, which, I was told, may be incomplete.The city estimates the current total market value of the Witnessproperties that are shown here at over 190 million dollars. Avery small proportion of this property is taxed, most of it iswholly exempt. If all of this property were on the tax rolls,the city would receive an additional $9,427,051 per year. Butthis figure is based on current assessments, which, in the caseof totally exempt buildings, are generally out of date. For thatreason one can estimate that the city loses well more than tenmillion dollars a year as a result of Witness real estate holdingsin Brooklyn Heights. This sum amounts to an indirect subsidy paidto the Witnesses by the tax payers of the city.
The Witnesses are certainly not alone in receiving such indirectsubsidies. All religious, educational, and charitable groups enjoysimilar benefits. But the Witnesses are distinctly different fromother religious groups because most of their properties are notused for religious purposes in the traditional sense. Unlike churchesand synagogues, most of the Witness property is not used for publicworship. The bulk of the Witness property in the Heights is used,first, to print Witness literature in the huge "factory"(printing plant), and, second, for the communal housing of about3,500 young Witnesses who work for no more than their upkeep.
The Witnesses, together with certain other groups, have obtainedsuch gray-area tax exemptions through aggressive litigation. Untilthe Second World War, the courts interpreted the laws providingfor religious tax exemption very strictly, and printing plantsand dormitories were held taxable. But since the war, New YorkState judges have liberalized the law considerably in a seriesof decisions in which the Witnesses figured very prominently.The result is that the Witnesses today enjoy property exemptionsfor uses that would have been deemed secular in an earlier age.Many say that the Witnesses benefit from a series of legal loopholes.
There is an irony in this situation. The Witnesses believe "worldly"institutions, especially governments, to be basically evil, thoughthey do teach that governments should generally be obeyed. Jehovah'sWitnesses, in matters other than real estate, jealously guardtheir "separation" from government. They will not servein the armed forces, especially not in time of war; they willnot salute the flag or pledge allegiance to the country; theyare, in their own view, above the worldly allegiances of the restof us. In a compendium of their doctrines entitled Insight onthe Scriptures, they proclaim that "Christians must keepthemselves clean and unspotted by [the] world's corruption anddefilements, not entering into friendly relations with it, lestthey be condemned with it." The willingness of the Witnessesto accept indirect government subsidies, through a number of legalloopholes, must be judged in the light of these Witness doctrines.
Some former Witnesses have criticized the organization for whatthey perceive as hypocrisy in the matter of real estate and otherworldly possessions. One such critic is the well-known writerBarbara Grizzuti Harrison, who recalls her Witness days in her1978 book Visions of Glory. Another is H. James Penton, a Canadianprofessor of history and an ex-Witness, who wrote a critical historyof the Witnesses in his 1985 volume Apocalypse Delayed. But themost embarrassing accounts, from the point of view of the Witnesses,are two books by Mr. Ray Franz, a former member of the WitnessGoverning Body: Crisis of Conscience, 1984, and In Search of ChristianFreedom, 1991.
But despite such criticism from former members, it is unlikelythat the Witnesses will pay voluntarily what is not required ofthem by law, or that public policy will change to require suchpayments. After all, many more millions are lost to the city throughtax exemptions of the larger denominations, and there are manyinstances, in the case of the major religions, of loopholes similarto those that benefit the Witnesses. It would require a veritablerevolution in the political climate before any such exempt propertiescould ever be brought onto the tax rolls.
Nevertheless, we do live in a time in which government cannotfind the means for the most basic services, a time in which peoplego hungry and unhoused and without medical care. Perhaps, whoknows, our politicians will some day come to reconsider theirpresent habit of heaping millions, no questions asked, upon allmanner of religion.
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