Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Bad Idea: Ending Tax Exemptions For Churches

Most of that $71 B came from this one congregation.
 So today I came across something as I was scouring the web, and it was not a happy sight.

This graphic proclaims that churches (and, I presume, synagogues, temples, mosques, and whatever else you may call a house of worship) are getting a free ride. All that money, contributed freely by the members, going somewhere other than the government. Of course, this is surely not intended to show a hostile attitude toward religious people, not an indication of distrust toward places of worship, just a desire to have everyone pay their fair share.

Right? Well, wrong. Dead wrong.

 Why do I think this is a bad idea? Because, as with many of the pictures with pity captions and clever graphics that you find online, it is deceptive. There are some things that you are not being told, and are not being encouraged to consider. Ending tax exemption for churches (and, by extension, every other place of worship) would have far-reaching consequences that even the creator of this image probably hasn't considered.

 One thing that supporters of this idea have missed is that churches do not get exemption just for being churches. The reason they are not taxed is because they are non-profit organizations. Like other organizations that are considered not-for-profit, they must complete paperwork to the effect that their primary purpose is not engaging in commerce. Non-profits perform charitable services; services that quite likely might not be done should their income be reduced by payments to the government. The federal government has long recognized the value of encouraging people to contribute to charitable services (churches or otherwise) which is why contributions to them can also be deducted from individual income tax payments. (Implicit in this argument is an understanding that a person's income belongs to that person to do with as he or she chooses; there is no compulsion to contribute to charitable non-profits, but the system is designed not to discourage people from doing so.) And of course, churches and other non-profits often benefit people who are not members of the congregation and may not even be sympathetic to its beliefs and goals.

 Now, here's where it gets interesting: there is something in the US that we refer to as the First Amendment. It states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." (emphasis mine) What that means is that no federal law can be designed specifically to target a religious institution, whether it is positive or negative for that religious institution. The rules that exempt churches from paying federal taxes are not a form of "special treatment" for churches; they are simply addressed to numerous institutions that include churches. If churches are to be required to pay taxes, then every non-profit institution must pay federal taxes. Every tax incentive that benefits every non-profit organization must be eliminated. Now, if you think that doing so, regardless of the nature of the non-profits affected, is a good idea, then that makes this a different discussion. However, I doubt that this is what the creator of this graphic had in mind. I have a suspicion that whoever made this had an animus toward organized religion, and would be shocked to find out that all sorts of secular organizations, many of them beneficial to the community, would suddenly find themselves deprived of potential millions of dollars, because they now must pay taxes on what they collect, and because contributions will eventually go down once the tax benefits of giving have vanished.

 Also, I have to mention that the government still gets a little tax money from churches and other non-profits, because some of that money goes to pay salaries for clergy, preachers, secretaries, etc. The people who make a living working for these organizations must still pay tax on their own income, just as they would for a "regular" job. (I confirmed this with my dad, who used to be a preacher and thus can be considered a subject matter expert.) And keep in mind that for the majority of religious people in this country, it is absolutely essential that they pay whatever taxes the government requires of them. Likewise, they use the funds they collect to pay for utilities, plumbing services, construction, supplies, and all the other things that allow them to function. The people who are paid for providing these services pay income tax on their earnings. Let's also note that this exemption does not apply to religiously-affiliated business, such as bookstores, which are considered for-profit, because their primary goal is commerce rather than charity or teaching.

 I'd like to think that I'm open-minded, and despite my biases I do my best to present ideas that might be controversial or incendiary in a fair and even-handed manner. But this is a terrible idea, short-sighted and narrow in its focus. In their zeal to punish churches for, well, being churches, they would risk crippling any and all institutions that serve a charitable purpose. No matter how noble the intent (not that I think the intent is noble anyway), the outcome would be nothing short of evil.

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