In a close 4-3 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Mesivtah Eitz Chaiom of Bobov, Inc. v. Pike County Board of Assessment Appeals, 16 MAP 2011, found that the General Assembly cannot displace the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution because “the ultimate power and authority to interpret the Pennsylvania Constitution rests with the Judiciary, and in particular with this Court.”

The Court noted that the very purpose of Article VIII, Section 2 of the Pennsylvania Constitution was not so much to limit the scope of exemptions to charities as to destroy the obnoxious feature of favoritism by special legislation.  The Court mentioned how prior to the 1874 Constitution, the legislature relieved from taxation just what property it saw fit, whether the property was charitable, religious, or even devoted solely to purposes of corporate or private gain.

In the end, the Court continued to hold that an entity seeking a statutory exemption from real estate taxation must first establish that it is a “purely public charity” under Article VIII, Section 2 of the Pennsylvania Constitution before the question of whether that entity meets the qualifications of a statutory exemption can be reached.  The standard test for determining if an entity qualifies as an “institution of purely public charity” under the Pennsylvania Constitution is whether it:

(a)    Advances a charitable purpose;
(b)    Donates or renders gratuitously a substantial portion of its services;
(c)    Benefits a substantial and indefinite class of persons who are legitimate subjects of charity;
(d)    Relieves the government of some of its burden; and
(e)    Operates entirely free from private profit motive.

Hospitalization Utilization Project v. Commonwealth, 487 A.2d 1306, 1317 (Pa. 1985) (“HUP”).

The dissent insisted that the General Assembly determined – as a matter of policy – that more refinement was necessary for efficient, uniform application of the HUP test and enacted legislation to serve that purpose.  Thus, the dissent declared that Act 55 is an integrated legal test blending the Judiciary’s well-crafted HUP test with the wide-ranging policy making experience of the legislature.  Accordingly, for the dissent, an organization is a purely public charity if it satisfies the criteria set forth in Act 55.