By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Tabernacle Baptist Church is regaining its tax-exempt status following a judge’s ruling that the controversial sale of Ocean City’s oldest surviving church to its former pastor was “illegitimate,” a church leader said.
Normally, churches have tax-exempt status, but Tabernacle Baptist temporarily came under private ownership in March 2019 during a sale of the property to Pastor Charles Frazier, who has since died.
Tabernacle Baptist’s board of trustees regained ownership of the property in December 2019 after it filed a lawsuit against Frazier challenging a deal he had worked out with the church’s former leaders to sell him the building for $1.
During the time it was under private ownership, the church lost its tax-exempt status. The city was legally required to impose property taxes on the church after it had passed into Frazier’s hands.
After falling behind in its property taxes, the church was threatened with a tax sale. However, a community fundraising effort and private donations helped Tabernacle Baptist to pay the city the approximately $8,700 in back taxes it owed for 2019 and $9,700 for 2020.
A ruling by state Superior Court Judge Michael Blee last month will allow the church to regain its tax-exempt status. Blee also invalidated the church’s sale to Frazier and ordered the “illegitimate deed” for the transaction to be declared null and void, said Shari Thompson, chairwoman of the Tabernacle Baptist board of trustees.
“He invalidated the deed, anything that gave Frazier ownership,” Thompson said in an interview Sunday.
Thompson appeared before City Council at its Nov. 5 meeting to announce the court ruling in the church’s favor. At the same time, she reiterated an agreement between the church and city for the city to refund the back taxes that were paid for 2019 and 2020 if Tabernacle Baptist regained its tax-exempt status.
However, before the city can refund the taxes, it must formally wait for a 45-day appeal period to end in the litigation, City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson said.
“We certainly don’t expect anyone to challenge what was a very wise decision of the court to restore the status quo and put this church back in the hands of the rightful owners,” McCrosson said.
McCrosson said all the city is waiting for is the expiration of the 45-day period to make sure no appeals are filed.
“I expect a refund will be made to the church at the expiration of that period,” she added.
With the litigation and tax troubles nearing an end, the board of trustees is planning to make physical improvements to the church, including a new coat of white paint for the exterior, repairing the broken gutters and adding a new chairlift, Thompson said.
At the same time, the church is preparing to launch a membership drive to expand the congregation, she noted.
Tabernacle Baptist, one of South Jersey’s most historic African-American churches, dates back to 1890 in Ocean City, making it the town’s oldest surviving church.
The church cornerstone displays the year 1908, which actually marks the date the building was physically moved from Central Avenue to the corner of Eighth Street and West Avenue and placed on its “new” foundation, now 112 years old.