Camps Newfound/Owatonna, Inc. v. Town of Harrison
Annotate this Case
520 U.S. 564 (1997)
OCTOBER TERM, 1996
CAMPS NEWFOUND/OWATONNA, INC. v. TOWN OF HARRISON ET AL.
CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME JUDICIAL COURT OF MAINE No. 94-1988. Argued October 9, 1996-Decided May 19, 1997
Petitioner, a Maine nonprofit corporation, operates a church camp for children, most of whom are not Maine residents. Petitioner is financed through camper tuition and other revenues. From 1989 to 1991, it paid over $20,000 per year in real estate and personal property taxes. A state statute provides a general exemption from those taxes for charitable institutions incorporated in Maine. With respect to institutions operated principally for the benefit of Maine nonresidents, however, a charity may only qualify for a more limited tax benefit, and then only if its weekly charge for services does not exceed $30 per person. Petitioner was ineligible for any exemption, because its campers were largely nonresidents and its weekly tuition was roughly $400 per camper. Mter respondent town of Harrison (Town) rejected its request for a refund of taxes already paid and a continuing exemption from future taxes, which was based principally on a claim that the tax exemption statute violated the Commerce Clause, petitioner filed suit and was awarded summary judgment by the Superior Court. The Maine Supreme Judicial Court reversed, holding that petitioner had not met its burden of persuasion that the statute is unconstitutional.
Held: An otherwise generally applicable state property tax violates the Commerce Clause if its exemption for property owned by charitable institutions excludes organizations operated principally for the benefit of nonresidents. Pp.571-595.
(a) Because the Government lacked power to regulate interstate commerce during the Nation's first years, the States freely adopted measures fostering local interests without regard to possible prejudice to nonresidents, resulting in a "conflict of commercial regulations, destructive to the harmony of the States." Gibbons v. Ogden, 9 Wheat. 1,224 (Johnson, J., concurring in judgment). Arguably, this was the cause of the Constitutional Convention. Ibid. The Commerce Clause not only granted Congress express authority to override restrictive and conflicting state commercial regulations, but also effected a curtailment of state power even absent congressional legislation. Pp. 571-572.
(b) The Court is unpersuaded by the Town's arguments that the dormant Commerce Clause is inapplicable here, either because campers are
not "articles of commerce," or more generally because interstate commerce is not implicated. The camp is unquestionably engaged in commerce, not only as a purchaser, see, e. g., Katzenbach v. McClung, 379 U. S. 294, 300-301, but also as a provider of goods and services akin to a hotel, see, e. g., Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. United States, 379 U. S. 241, 244, 258. Although the latter case involved Congress' affirmative powers, its reasoning is applicable in the dormant Commerce Clause context. See, e. g., Hughes v. Oklahoma, 441 U. S. 322, 326, n. 2. The Town's further argument that the dormant Clause is inapplicable because a real estate tax is at issue is also rejected. Even assuming, as the Town argues, that Congress could not impose a national real estate tax, States are not free to levy such taxes in a manner that discriminates against interstate commerce. Pennsylvania v. West Virginia, 262 U. S. 553, 596. Pp. 572-575.
(c) There is no question that if this statute targeted profit-making entities, it would violate the dormant Commerce Clause. The statute discriminates on its face against interstate commerce: It expressly distinguishes between entities that serve a principally interstate clientele and those that primarily serve an intrastate market, singling out camps that serve mostly in-staters for beneficial tax treatment, and penalizing those camps that do a principally interstate business. Such laws are virtually per se invalid. E. g., Fulton Corp. v. Faulkner, 516 U. S. 325, 331. Because the Town did not attempt to defend the statute by demonstrating that it advances a legitimate local purpose that cannot be adequately served by reasonable nondiscriminatory alternatives, e. g., Oregon Waste Systems, Inc. v. Department of Environmental Quality of Ore., 511 U. S. 93, 101, the Court does not address this question. See Fulton Corp., 516 U. S., at 333-334. Pp. 575-583.
(d) The rule applicable to profit-making enterprises also applies to a discriminatory tax exemption for charitable and benevolent institutions. The dormant Commerce Clause's applicability to the nonprofit sector follows from this Court's decisions holding not-for-profit institutions subject to laws regulating commerce, e. g., Associated Press v. NLRB, 301 U. S. 103, 129, and to the federal antitrust laws, e. g., National Collegiate Athletic Assn. v. Board of Regents of Univ. of Okla., 468 U. S. 85, 100, n. 22. The Court has already held that the dormant Clause applies to activities not intended to earn a profit, Edwards v. California, 314 U. S. 160,172, n. 1, and there is no reason why an enterprise's nonprofit character should exclude it from the coverage of either the affirmative or the negative aspect of the Clause, see, e. g., Hughes v. Oklahoma, 441 U. S., at 326, n. 2. Whether operated on a for-profit or