GRAND LODGE F. & A. MASONS V. NEW ORLEANS, 166 U. S. 143 (1897)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Grand Lodge F. & A. Masons v. New Orleans, 166 U.S. 143 (1897)

Grand Lodge F. and A. Masons of Louisiana v. New Orleans

No. 111

Argued January 19, 1897

Decided March 15, 1897

166 U.S. 143


Act No. 225 of the Legislature of Louisiana of March 15, 1855, exempting the hall of the Grand Lodge from state and parish taxation, "so long as it is occupied as a Grand Lodge of the F. & A. Masons," did not constitute a contract between the state and the complainant, but was a mere continuing gratuity which the legislature was at liberty to terminate or withdraw at any time.

If such a law be a mere offer of bounty, it may be withdrawn at any time, although the recipients may have incurred expense on the faith of the offer.

This was a petition originally filed in the Civil District Court for the Parish of Orleans by the Grand Lodge of the F. & A. Masons of the State of Louisiana to enjoin the City of New Orleans from proceeding to sell, for the taxes of 1888, 1889, and 1890, certain property owned by the petitioner and claimed to be exempt from taxation.

The petition set forth that the grand lodge was incorporated by a perpetual charter granted by the legislature in 1816; that petitioner was the owner of a lot of ground, with buildings and improvements thereon at the corner of St. Charles and Perdido Streets, known as the hall of the grand lodge, etc., which property it had purchased in 1853 by a notarial act, in which was incorporated a resolution of the grand lodge which, in substance, devoted the entire net revenues of such property "to the relief of worthy distressed members of the order, their wives, children, and families, and as a permanent charitable fund;" that such resolution was in strict accord with the objects of the institution, of which the grand lodge is the superintending body or organization, "the principles of which are charity and universal benevolence," and "to the end thereof, that charitable institutions

Page 166 U. S. 144

may be promoted," the act of incorporation was enacted; that further to promote this object, the legislature, by an Act approved March 15, 1855, exempted said hall from city and parish taxation so long as it was occupied by the Grand Lodge of F. & A. Masons, which exemption was claimed to have become a contract between the state and the grand lodge so long as the property was owned and occupied by it. The petitioner alleged that the principles and objects of Free Masonry are still unchanged, and that the net revenues arising from the property have not been diverted; that the city now claims that the property is subject to taxation, and threatens to enforce the collection of the taxes.

The answer of the city was simply a general denial.

Upon the trial, it appeared that the grand lodge was incorporated by Act of March 18, 1816, with full power and authority to take, hold, and enjoy real and personal property, etc.; that the hall was erected in the year 1845 for a commercial exchange, and was purchased by the grand lodge for a hall in 1853; that on March 15, 1855, the General Assembly enacted that the building, whose location and name were given in the act, should be exempt from state and parish taxation so long as it was occupied as the Grand Lodge of F. & A. Masons. It further appeared that the objects proposed by the institution were charity and universal benevolence; that contributions were exacted from each member of the order for the ordinary expenses of the lodge and as a fund for the purposes of charity, to be distributed as occasion required, and that from 1853 to the present time, the whole of the revenue, except that used for insurance, repairs, and current expenses, has been exclusively devoted to charitable purposes, as stated in the charter and act of sale. These revenues averaged over $3,000 per year.

It further appeared that in 1879 a new Constitution was adopted by the state, of which article 207 was as follows:

"The following property shall be exempt from taxation, and no other, viz.: all public property, places of religious worship or burial, all charitable institutions; . . . provided, the

Page 166 U. S. 145

property so exempted be not used or leased for purposes of private or corporate profit or income."

Upon the hearing in the district, court the property was held to be exempt from taxation, and an injunction granted. The city appealed to the supreme court, which reversed the decree of the district court and dissolved the injunction. Upon a rehearing, the decree was amended by recognizing the exemption of that part of the property occupied by the grand and subordinate lodges of Masons, and in other respects the demand was rejected and the case remanded to the court below with directions to hear evidence and ascertain what property was thus occupied, and what property was rented or used for private or corporate profit or income, and to pass upon and decide the relative values of that part of the property thus occupied by said Masons to that leased or used as aforesaid -- that is, "from the assessed value of the property, viz., $60,000, must be deducted the value of the property exempted aforesaid."

The case having been remanded and reheard in the district court, a new judgment was rendered in favor of the city for the city taxes of 1888 on an assessment of $20,000, of the year 1889 on an assessment of $10,000, and for the year 1890 on an assessment of $6,200. The case was then appealed and reheard in the supreme court and the judgment of the district court affirmed, whereupon petitioner sued out this writ of error.

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