Friday, November 21, 2008


Separation of Church and Tax

The New York Times recently had a long-ish article on how churches came together to defeat California’s Proposition 8 — especially the Mormon church, but not just that one:

First approached by the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Francisco a few weeks after the California Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage in May, the Mormons were the last major religious group to join the campaign, and the final spice in an unusual stew that included Catholics, evangelical Christians, conservative black and Latino pastors, and myriad smaller ethnic groups with strong religious ties.

Shortly after receiving the invitation from the San Francisco Archdiocese, the Mormon leadership in Salt Lake City issued a four-paragraph decree to be read to congregations, saying “the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan,” and urging members to become involved with the cause.

“And they sure did,” Mr. Schubert said.

And, yet, despite the political clout that these churches wield, despite the money they caused to be raised to limit the civil rights of a group of people, despite the obvious activism of church officials, all of these churches enjoy tax-exempt status as religious institutions.

Now, the churches, of course, are well aware of the problem:

Leaders were also acutely conscious of not crossing the line from being a church-based volunteer effort to an actual political organization.

“No work will take place at the church, including no meeting there to hand out precinct walking assignments so as to not even give the appearance of politicking at the church,” one of the documents said.

That, though, is no more than the thinnest veneer of separation; it certainly doesn’t convince me of anything (and the fact that they’re trying to smooth it over that way makes me question their ethics). Churches are clearly involved in political action, and not just on this issue. And it’s only natural that they be so: they are gathering points for groups of people who share common ideals, and, likely, common political views. It makes sense that they would use those gathering points as places to recruit people sympathetic to a political cause.

The problem is that they do that and still enjoy exemption from taxes. That’s abuse of the system.

I don’t agree with the general question of tax exemption in the first place. It is not, in any reasonable sense, state interference to require religious organizations to pay the same sorts of taxes that any other organizations would pay. Property taxes should certainly be levied on church land and buildings.[1] Income taxes should certainly be due on huge profits that are not fed back into charitable works (Lord knows, there are certainly some people making it rich by preaching The Word, whether or not those people stand in front of your particular congregation). It must be fair, of course: their tax bill has to be the same as a non-religious organization’s would be in the same situation.

In fact, quite the opposite: exempting “approved” religious organizations from taxes only serves to give them preference over other religious organizations to which we don’t give our approval. Why would the followers of Martin Luther get the nod, while those of David Koresh or Jim Jones not? If those are too far “out there”, what about Sun-Myung Moon and his Unification Church; what about the Church of Scientology? Scientology’s tax-exempt status in the U.S. is certainly full of controversy, and their status as an accepted “religion” in different countries varies.

The point is that as soon as we decide that her religion gets tax-exempt status and his doesn’t, even if it’s the case that pretty much all of us agree on the relative legitimacy of the two, we have interfered by making that decision.

But even if you accept the concept of exempting religious organizations from paying taxes in order to avoid government interference in religion, how can you accept, at the same time, obvious religious interference in the workings of the government, and in the laws the government creates?

[1] Though, to be realistic, it’s not clear how one assesses the value of some of the massive churches, cathedrals, and temples that are around and about.

1 comment:

Laurie said...

Many churches here weren't very careful. There were a lot of churches with the big Yes on 8 signs outside, and at least one megachurch with one of those huge marquee signs next to the freeway that said YES ON 8 in enormous letters on both sides. I doubt any of them are losing their tax-exempt status over it.