Thursday, May 26, 2011


"Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?”
 Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner

 As a country founded with no national religion and a Constitution which expressly mandates a separation of church and state, it is amazing to me that our nation has continued since Colonial times to support certain income and property tax exemptions for religious organizations and institutions. Since the founding of our country, the number, size and diversity of houses of worship and spiritual centers have grown dramatically. Today, these religious and spiritual spaces can and do take in billions in unreported revenue. With the exclusion of payroll taxes for employees, none of the actual revenue from donations, the lion share of most religious fundraising, is given back in the form of income tax to our government.

Not having to report this revenue stream or pay property taxes, in my opinion, is a form of white-collar crime. This certainly would be the case if these same exemptions were not endorsed by our nation’s current tax code.

One estimate notes that religious organizations occupy about twenty percent of the owned land in the United States. So what would happen if churches, mosques and synagogues, as well as other spiritual and religiously affiliated groups had to pay their fair share in taxes? It can be assessed that with both property valuation and the reporting of financial gifts, these sources would bring in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue to our nation annually. These funds could support education, healthcare, and local, state and our national government at a time when poverty is rising, and when property values on private homes and personal income are shrinking.

Religious organizations are considered charitable because of their perceived benefit to our society. Therefore, they are designated by the U.S. tax code to be free from taxation of most revenue and owned property. However, many individuals, organizations and legal cases have challenged these longstanding exemptions. From church ownership of commercial property (Gibbons v District of Columbia - c1886) to the payment of payroll taxes, social security, and medicare (Indianapolis Baptist Temple v United States of America - c2000) the courts have found that paying certain taxes does not violate the separation of church and state or the federal tax code.

After more than two hundred years of freebies and economic hall passes, shouldn't our government require all religious organizations, regardless of their size and 501(c)3 status to pay income taxes if they own property? If given the chance and if it was legal to do so, my assumption is few, except those who are truly altruistic would pay income and property taxes.

In western capitalistic culture, keeping earned income to support oneself, a family or community is not egotistical, but a survival mechanism that citizens have adopted to ensure economic security and continuance of a basic way of life based on several variables. These variables include our cultural environment - both mores and attitudes, the dependence on the marketplace and the artificial nature and subjective value of both money and economic and political power as well as the real impact these currents have on our personal decisions and group life ways.

I can understand that through using the tools of anthropology and ethnography why large and small for-profit businesses as well as houses of worship wish to avoid paying their fair share in taxes. It should come as no surprise since having the legal option to opt out and conserve resources and assets, such tax policy provides an "evolutionary" advantage in continuing an organization's existence and its ability to perpetuate itself into the future.

But paying taxes is something we as citizens all have to do if we wish to both own and give back to the community, both locally and nationally. On the local level, our taxes support services that keep our streets safe, clean and in good repair, educate the young and support the poor and aged. At the national level, taxes fund programs which keep our nation safe, healthy and innovative. In a pluralistic society, a fair tax code enforces the social bond that ensures we pay and receive services equitably.

Because so many religious institutions get away without paying taxes, they are not only bad neighbors, but the lost tax revenue places additional strain on local and national budgets for services. These services are consumed by the same religious organizations that pay little or nothing for their access and usage.

Some on the political religious left criticize and actively protest large corporations and banks for their use of legal tax laws, known collectively as tax loopholes. I do support every citizen's right to protest to bring change and agree that the taxes multi-national corporations appear to avoid are unfair, especially at a time of government bailouts, high unemployment, the loss of homes and overall scarcity of resources.

But aren't tax laws which allow religious organizations the opportunity to avoid paying billions in income and property taxes also huge tax loopholes? Thus, there appears to be a disconnect with some on the religious left, especially when a "loophole" works in their perceived favor. I believe that a tax code that supports relaxed taxation of the few, in this case large corporations, the super wealthy and organized religious groups, deserves equal scrutiny.

Why not begin to require houses of worship, which are legally exempt from paying income and property taxes, (although they draw in billions of dollars from individuals and our government) shoulder any universal tax burdens? I ask those who would want to keep such loopholes for religious organizations, why not the same level of accountability as for a for-profit corporation?

After all, organized religions (and we know which they are) are nothing but old and big multi-national corporations whose products are spiritual rather than tangible. These religious organizations act like corporations. They have management hierarchies, goals and objectives, sales forces, planning and marketing meetings, distribution points, provide services, use branding and icons, offer opportunities to franchise, hold conferences, have PACs and lawyers, maintain investments, own property, they set quotas to fill and also have very profitable financial bottom lines.

So if we are to be fair to everyone regarding the taxation needs of our country, it is time to repeal the status quo regarding the hands off nature of our tax code related to religious organizations in the United States. A fairer code, if even implemented over time would allow our government to collect needed revenue and it would also make houses of worship, which claim to be community based truly part of the community. Until they can actually feel our pain regarding taxation, they are, like many big corporations and banks legally above the law.

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