A touchy subject- on many levels.
But let’s look at some important issues. First of all- the constiution- as many of the most rabid supporters of the church also seem to be rabid defenders of the constitution. (never mind that whether we are discussing the bible or the constiution, it tends to be “their” interpretation of it that is correct…). So: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So- how exactly is a tax exemption NOT making laws respecting the establishment of a religion?
And of course- we are not just talking about the physical house of worship and it’s clergy that are tax exempt. We are talking about profitable business- universities, hospitals, publishing companies, bookstores, and numerous other for profit businesses. We are also talking about billions of dollars worth of real estate. (some research I have seen suggests the total of untaxed church real estate may exceed $1 Trillion dollars by a substantial margin)
And how much money are we talking? A relatively recent study pegged the figure (which many experts upon reviewing the study was a lowball figure) but the number at over $71 Billion a year. In federal taxes only- not including the losses to the states.
So no- this is not going to solve americas financial problems. The military must be trimmed. Entitlements must be trimmed and abuses of them reeled in. Taxes must be raised (and we need to return to more levels of rates- we currently top out at 35% marginal for over $388K. The tax code essentially ignores there are those making $1 million, 5 million, 50 million a year)
But a lowball figure of $71 billion a year- plus the amounts to state governments, is nothing to sneeze at. And I can not think of a single justifiable reason to continue these exemptions.
And a few quotes:–
Jesus Christ: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Benjamin Franklin: “When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obligated to call for help of the civil power, it’s a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”
And famously- Ulysses S Grant, who submitted a petition to congress in 1875 bearing 35,000 signatures (more then enough to force a response on todays White House Petition site) stating: “We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation.”. (Population at the time was roughly 44 million compared to todays 311+ million ). And from the text: “I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land….it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property….In 1850, the church properties in the U.S. which paid no taxes, municipal or state, amounted to about $83 million. In 1860, the amount had doubled; in 1875, it is about $1 billion. By 1900, without check, it is safe to say this property will reach a sum exceeding $3 billion….so vast a sum, receiving all the protection and benefits of government without bearing its portion of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes….I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.“
And then on course- we also have the issue of the churches so called charities. And the demands of many churches that their followers must tithe 10% to be in good standing.
While it is hard to argue that “charitable organizations” do not deserve to be tax exempt- the churches provide an interesting wrinkle. In many cases their “charities” have, as a major function- prosthletizing. Bringing in more converts (and ultimately more tax free money). If you have any experience with charitable organizations you will know that a not insignificant portion of those you serve refuse to use faith based charities because they don’t like the pressure- and feel they are disingenuous in their giving, at best.
We also have religious universities- from Bringham Young to Oral Roberts who, it can be well argued, care more about cementing the indoctrination into the faith then they do in providing a real education.
It is time to end the tax free status of churches, while allowing their truly charitable tentacles to retain tax exemption in some form.
The ONLY downside I see- is that it would free churches to participate financially in politics. Particularly worrying perhaps in the age of Citizens United . But of course it’s already impossible to argue that churches aren’t involved in politics in many ways. And forcing them into the sunshine rather then allowing them to lurk in the shadows may have some interesting consequences if they choose to go down the political road.