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Affirmed and Memorandum Opinion filed August 28, 2008.


In The


Fourteenth Court of Appeals



NO. 14-07-00447-CV









On Appeal from the 295th District Court

Harris County, Texas

Trial Court Cause No. 2004B54073



M E M O R A N D U M   O P I N I O N

In this delinquent ad valorem property tax case, a church appeals a judgment in favor of several taxing units on the grounds that the church was improperly named in the petition below and is immune from taxation.  Because the taxing units established their prima facie case and the church raised no legally cognizable defense, we affirm.

I.  Factual and Procedural Background

In September 2004, Harris County, the Harris County Education Department, the Harris County Education District, the Port of Houston Authority of Harris County, the Harris County Flood Control District, the Harris County Hospital District; the Houston Independent School District; the City of Houston; and the Houston Community College System (collectively, the Ataxing units@) sued Grace Memorial Baptist Church a.k.a. Grace Baptist Church n.k.a. Church of the Lord Jesus Christ (the AChurch@) for delinquent property taxes.[1]  The taxing units sought to collect back property taxes and associated penalties and interest on a vacant residential duplex owned by the Church and located on Plum Drive in Houston.

A hearing before a tax master was conducted in April 2006.  The tax master found that Aall parties were properly cited and noticed@ and concluded that the Church owed back property taxes, penalties, interest, and attorneys= fees to the taxing units in an amount totaling nearly $60,000.  The Church appealed the tax master=s report  to the District Court.

The Church apparently failed to appear at the first trial setting on September 18, 2006, and the trial court rendered judgment in favor of the taxing units, tracking the master=s report as to the amount of property taxes, penalties, interest, and fees owed by the Church.  In March 2007, however, the trial court granted the Church=s motion for new trial.

The trial court conducted a bench trial on May 17, 2007.  The taxing units presented evidence that the Church owned the property and provided a detailed certified delinquent property tax statement from the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector.  In response,  the Church asserted that the taxing units improperly named it as AGrace Memorial Baptist@ in the style of the case.  In addition, the Church argued that  it is a sovereign entity;and therefore immune from taxation and not subject to the court=s jurisdiction.  The taxing units responded that religious exemptions are determined exclusively through the Harris County Appraisal District, which was not a party to this lawsuit.  The taxing units further asserted the trial court lacked jurisdiction over the issue of any religious exemption because the Church had not followed the proper procedures to obtain an exemption as a religious organization.  The Church, however, maintained that it is not subject to section 11.20 of the Property Code.  See Tex. Prop. Code Ann. ' 11.20 (Vernon 2008) (governing tax exemptions for religious organizations).  The trial court agreed that it was without jurisdiction to determine the exemption issue and rendered judgment in favor of the taxing units on the delinquent property tax issue.  This appeal ensued.

II.  Issues Presented

The precise issues the Church presents on appeal are not clearly enumerated in its brief.  Notwithstanding this lack of clarity, we glean the following issues for review: (a) the style of the lawsuit names a non-existent not-for-profit Texas corporation; (b) the Church is immune from State property taxes; and (c) the Church is not required to follow the State=s procedures to obtain an exemption from property taxes because the process violates the Church=s sovereignty.

III.  Analysis

A.        Style of Case

In the AIssues Presented@ section of its brief, the Church states, AThe style of the suit names a non-existent not-for-profit Texas corporation.@  But as noted above, the taxing units filed an amended petition in which they identified the Church as AGrace Memorial Baptist Church aka Grace Baptist Church nka Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.@  Although the shorthand style of the suit remained the same, the Church was clearly denominated in the body of the petition as the defendant.  Further, Church pastor Aubrey Vaughan admitted during the bench trial that (1) the Church owns the property at issue, (2) the pastor is the proper person to receive service on behalf of the Church, (3) he is the pastor, and (4) he had notice of the lawsuit.  Finally, the Church provides no argument or legal authority explaining the significance of the allegedly incorrect manner in which the case was originally styled.  See Tex. R. App. P. 38.1(h).  Thus, we cannot say that this alleged error either probably caused the rendition of an improper judgment or probably prevented the Church from properly presenting its case to this Court.  See Tex. R. App. P. 44.1(a).  Under these circumstances, this issue lacks merit.

B.        The Church=s Claim of ATax Immunity@

Our resolution of the Church=s claim of Atax immunity@ turns on the difference between the procedures established by statute for collecting delinquent taxes and for obtaining tax exemptions.  This case is a delinquent tax suit, and it is undisputed that taxes have not been paid on the property since 1984.  The Church does not deny that it owns the property or that the property is located within the boundaries of the taxing units.  See Tex. Tax. Code Ann. ' 42.09(b)(1), (2).  Moreover, it is uncontroverted that the Church does not currently have a religious exemption from the Harris County Appraisal District and has not applied for such an exemption.[2]  Instead, the Church maintains that there is no need for it to apply for a tax exemption because, as a church, it already is Aimmune@ from taxation.  But see Tex. Const. art. VIII, ' 1(b) (providing that all real property is subject to taxation Aunless exempt as required or permitted by this Constitution@) (emphasis added)).

Regardless of whether a property owner considers the property to be Aimmune@ or Aexempt@ from taxation, the Legislature has provided a means for the property owner to protest the taxation of its property.  See Tex. Tax Code Ann. ' ' 41.41(a)(3) (Vernon 2008) (property owner is entitled to protest before the appraisal review board the inclusion of the owner=s property on the appraisal records); (a)(9) (property owner may also protest before the appraisal review board any action of the appraisal district that applies to and adversely affects the property owner).  Specifically, the property owner may protest the tax by notifying the appropriate appraisal review board.  See id. ' (b)(3).  The appraisal review board then conducts a hearing on the protest and issues a written decision, which may be appealed to the district court.  Id. ' 41.47. 

With certain exceptions that are not at issue in this case, the  procedure described above is the exclusive means by which a property owner may adjudicate the grounds of its tax protest.  Id. ' 42.09(a).  Moreover, because the Tax Code provides procedures for adjudicating the Church=s asserted grounds for avoiding taxation, those grounds cannot be used as a defense in a suit by a taxing unit to collect delinquent taxes.  See id. (providing that a property owner may not raise, as a defense to a suit to enforce collection of delinquent taxes, any ground of protest that could be adjudicated by the appraisal review board).  Thus, the Church had no right to assert, and the trial court correctly acknowledged that it had no jurisdiction to consider, the Church=s claim of immunity from taxation.  See Cameron Appraisal Dist. v. Rourk, 194 S.W.3d 501, 502 (Tex. 2006) (per curiam) (holding that Aa taxpayer=s failure to pursue an appraisal review board hearing deprives the courts of jurisdiction@ to set aside individual assessments); St. Joseph Orthodox Christian Church v. Spring Branch Indep. Sch. Dist., 110 S.W.3d 477, 479 (Tex. App.CHouston [14th Dist.] 2003, no pet.) (concluding that church=s claim of entitlement to exemption may not be raised as a defense in a suit for collection of delinquent taxes); see also Nw. Tex. Conference of United Methodist Church v. Happy Indep. Sch. Dist., 839 S.W.2d 140, 143 (Tex. App.CAmarillo 1992, no writ) (determining that compliance with the administrative review process to resolve tax protests is jurisdictional); City of Shenandoah v. Jimmy Swaggart Evangelistic Ass=n, 785 S.W.2d 899, 900, 903 (Tex. App.CBeaumont 1990, writ denied) (holding that trial court Awas jurisdictionally prohibited from allowing the appellee to proceed with the claim of tax exemption during any portion of the delinquent tax suit@). 

In sum, the Church failed to pursue the administrative procedures that were its exclusive means of relief.[3]  Thus, its argument regarding tax immunity could not be considered at trial and cannot be considered on appeal.  The same is true of the Church=s argument that  it could not Asubmit jurisdiction to any other by paying taxes or filling out demanded government forms@; this basis for protest could have been presented to the appraisal review board.  Compare 34 Tex. Admin. Code ' 9.415(c)(7) (2008) (adopting a form for religious organizations= applications for tax exemption) with Tex. Tax Code Ann. ' 41.44(d) (explaining that a notice of protest need not be on an official form).  Because the tax-protest procedure set forth in the Tax Code is the exclusive means to assert these arguments, they are not legally-cognizable defenses in a tax collection proceeding. We therefore overrule the remainder of the Church=s issues presented on appeal.

IV.  Conclusion

Having overruled each of the Church=s issues, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.



/s/        Eva M. Guzman



Judgment rendered and Memorandum Opinion filed August 28, 2008.

Panel consists of Justices Frost, Seymore, and Guzman.

[1]  Initially, the taxing units sued AGrace Memorial Baptist Church, An Active Non Profit TX Corp.@ by serving its registered agent, A.O. Singer, in LaMarque, Texas.  By amended petition filed May 10, 2005, the taxing units served the Church through its pastor and executive committee member, Aubrey Vaughan, naming the Church as a defendant in the body of its petition as follows: AGrace Memorial Baptist Church aka Grace Baptist Church nka Church of the Lord Jesus Christ.@  The Church is not incorporated.

[2]  According to Vaughan, completing the forms required to obtain a religious exemption would violate the Church=s religious principles. 

[3]  See Tex. Tax Code Ann. '' 11.43(a) (application process); 41.41(a) (taxpayer=s right to protest); 41.47(a) (appraisal review board=s determination of protest); 42.01(1)(A) (property owner=s right of appeal); 42.21(a), (b) (appeal procedure); 42.41, .42, .43 (correction of tax rolls and bills, refund of any overpayment).  We further note that the Legislature is authorized to exempt religious organizations from taxation but is not required to do so.  Tex. Const. art. VIII, ' 2(a).