Politics and behind-the-scenes maneuvering are threatening one Presbyterian ministry group at the University of Wisconsin, but the issue at hand could have a far-reaching effect on religious organizations nationwide.

The Presbyterian Student Center Foundation, known as Pres House since the 1920s, has had a presence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in one form or another since its founding in 1907. At times it’s been a full-blown Presbyterian church and at others, a small student group. But it has always provided students with spiritual guidance and a faith-based place to gather. 

As part of a revitalization of the ministry that began in 2000 and included a renovation of the chapel building, Pres House constructed a student housing building with 250 beds on the adjacent vacant lot. Residents pay rent, and the revenue generated is put toward funding the mission work of Pres House. It supports scholarships for residents to lower rent costs, worship, small groups, service trips, volunteer work in Madison, pastoral counseling and an on-site chaplain presence. All the services are available not just to Pres House Apartments residents but to all students on campus.

“We are not just ministering to the kids in our building; we’re ministering to the whole campus.  Our campus church draws from all over the place, graduate students, undergraduate students — some of them live in our building, many of them don’t,” said the Rev. Mark Elsdon, campus co-pastor and executive director of Pres House.

But it is the apartment building that makes Pres House unique. 

“We do ministry that nobody else is doing, at least the apartment ministry that we do, because the university here is a state-based school so they can’t provide a chaplain in their dorms,” Elsdon said. “There are other churches on campus — we’re not the only church on campus — but we are the only faith-based housing option on campus.” 

It’s the apartment building that has also made Pres House a target. When the building opened in 2007, city officials in Madison determined it didn’t fit into any of the existing property tax exemption categories. The matter was taken to the state legislature, with the full support of the Madison City Council, and legislation was passed in 2009 to clarify the laws and grant the exemption.

Now, in 2011 and with a shift in power from Democrats to Republicans in the state, Pres House recently found out that its exemption was being targeted for repeal as an unnecessary Democratic earmark.

The ramifications for Pres House if the tax exemption is repealed are serious. Elsdon estimates the tax bill for the building would likely be about $200,000 annually. By the time the taxes are paid out of the revenues, there wouldn’t be much left for the ministry work. 

“Every dollar we pay in taxes is just going away from the ministry that we do for students. In this case, it’s so much money that it’s actually going to take away almost everything that we do potentially,” Elsdon said.

The options would be to keep the building but do away with much of the current ministry work due to a lack of funding or to sell the building to the university, which ironically would make it once again tax exempt anyway, but still lose out on generating any revenue to fund ministry.

According to Elsdon, the prospects are looking grim. The budget bill is in the joint finance committee and will likely be finished within days. From there, it goes to the state assembly and the senate but Elsdon says they’ve been told there won’t be much changed at that point. After that it goes to the governor and if the repeal is still part of it, the last option will be to ask the governor for a line item veto of the repeal provision, although he’s not sure how successful they would be.

The Apartment Association of South Central Wisconsin is the group asking for the repeal of Pres House’s tax exemption.

“We believe special property tax exemptions are not good public policy and as such we are opposed to this special exemption,” wrote Nancy Jensen, executive director of the association, in an email. “There are many wonderful, needed services in our state and Wisconsin has a state law providing for property tax exemptions, which this property did not qualify for.”

While it’s been played up as a Democrat versus Republican legislation scenario, Elsdon doesn’t think that’s the real issue on the table.

“I think that it’s partly politics but I think that actually part of it is that the folks that take that position have used politics as a tool. They’ve used the partisan environment that we have here in the country and in Wisconsin as a tool to actually go after something on a deeper level,” he said. “They used that kind of a red herring to cover up what’s really going on, which is saying that what we do isn’t valuable enough to deserve an exemption.”

For Elsdon, that’s much more distressing than simply being the victim of bipartisan politics.  He’s found the sentiment that faith-based ministry, and specifically faith-based housing, is not deserving of an exemption to be surprisingly strong. That, he notes, should be a concern for the larger church as well.

“For me, that’s kind of a major slippery slope because if that’s the case in our housing, why then are churches or church camps or seminaries exempt?” he said.

Elsdon is saddened that opponents of the exemption don’t see any public benefit to the work Pres House does. Even worse, they simply don’t care about the work the ministry does or the people who use its services. He said students come from all over the country, and in many cases their families and churches want them to have a faith-based community on campus like Pres House to be a part of.

“One of the allegations that has been made about us is that we don’t do anything. We’re just a profit-making apartment building,” he said. “That’s very frustrating to hear because we spend our lives day in and day out ministering to students.” 

Toni Montgomery is a freelance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she is also secretary for First Presbyterian Church.