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Freedom From Paying For Religion
As of 1976, it looked like the church owned 10 percent of all U.S. property. That study has never been replicated, writes Christopher Ketcham, via Machines Like Us, great a percentage of non-taxed property wealth do you think they own today? Imagine how your taxes might go down if religious organizations were forced to pay taxes on their holdings. But, Ketcham writes, religions aren't even made to disclose their finances. And they use their pulpits to wield political power -- no taxation with overrepresentation:

The IRS today likes to pretend it maintains at least a few regulatory brickbats to bar the “ecclesiastical corporations” from direct influence in the halls of power. Chief among the rules is that churches shall not endorse candidates or otherwise engage their flocks in electoral efforts. This unfortunately did not sit well with certain congregants or their leaders in the run-up to the re-election of George W. Bush, whose victory arguably rested more than any other factor on the singular purpose and organization of an evangelical franchise. Mobilizing the faithful, Bush’s arch-fixer Karl Rove conducted weekly conference calls with the priests of the movement, who handed over membership lists for registration drives, while the Rev. Pat Robertson counseled at least 45,000 churches on the mechanics of working to re-elect the born-again president. All of this was in frank violation of IRS law.

Lack of oversight and disclosure coupled with timidity in regulation (or outright impotence) predictably leads to opportunity for fraud, or, at least, to generous allowances in the definition of “religious institution.” The village of Fleischmanns, New York, like all small towns a dependency of property tax, last year went bust after the majority Hasidic community declared their summer cottages “religious institutions.” Wiccan covens, brothels operating as churches of love, whole towns of New Ageists have received similar tax exemptions over the years. In Florida, a Biblical theme park, featuring live Jesus acts, demanded exemptions in a lawsuit that remains snagged in the courts, while in West Virginia a white supremacist group that worshiped, among other divinities, white people, received an exemption for land dedicated to prayer services (so did the Klu Klux Klan in Harrisburg, Penn.). The thieving psychobabble cult of Scientology retained its tax exemption by a simple name change: it became the Church of Scientology.

Meanwhile, the Austin, Tex., chapter of Ethical Society, the secular humanist group, fought bitterly in the regional federal appellates to win tax exemptions in 2004 for its atheist “ceremonies.” The Ethical Society victory, in retrospect, appears to dispel any meaningful curb on religious tax exemption claims. It makes hash of the Supreme Court’s only key ruling on property exemptions for churches, the Walz case of 1970. The Walz court offered that the religious tax exemption must be upheld primarily because it serves the social good of furthering the charitable function associated with religion—a function then as now purely ostensible and almost entirely taken up by social security for the disabled, county shelters for the homeless, state schools for the blind and deaf, etc. (The majority’s argument in Walz, it should be noted, is predicated on a delusion: Researchers at the University of Arizona concluded that just 3 percent of an average congregation’s total budget is spent on social services; only 6 percent of congregations have a staffer who devotes at least a quarter of his time to social services. “The bottom line,” said study author Mark Chaves, “is that most congregations are involved in social service activity in only a minor and peripheral way.”)

...If verification and regulation are thus deemed illegal, and widespread fraud is therefore a given, the simplest way out of the morass, perhaps, is to tax the churches across the board, much as that similarly cherished creature of the First Amendment, the press, has been taxed and has not suffered for it, except to become more competitive (though the exemption might be retained for those elements of a church—schools, soup kitchens, shelters—that actually serve the charitable function). Indeed, why should a righteous free market fund believers over non-believers? As Ben Franklin noted, “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…'tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

But don’t wait up nights for this eventuality, for in a society that boasts 325,000 houses of worship, roughly one for every 860 persons, in which church-going is the highest in our history (and the highest in the world), in which 83 percent of people take the Bible to be the “actual” word of God, half fear the devil, three-fourths believe in religious miracles, and a mere 9 percent swallow whole the concept of Darwinian evolution, there is no reason to expect the narcotizing effect of religion to cease its sway over presidencies, legislatures, and, most dangerously, over the high courts of the land, all of whom must in one forum or another answer to a public jealous of its hypnotic totems. Religion in the United States is more than simply respected. It is adored, petted, drooled over; it can do no wrong. This irrational consideration has catalyzed a silent but tectonic rifting not simply of the tax system but of the American legal system itself. Two separate and unequal set of laws now exist unquestioned: one for believers; and one, unbelievably, for everyone else. 

Posted by aalkon at March 18, 2007 11:52 AM


I guess if society wants to vote tax breaks for imaginary friends, what can you do.

"Lack of oversight and disclosure coupled with timidity in regulation (or outright impotence) predictably leads to opportunity for fraud..."

This speaks volumes about our current bureaucracy. Another gripe is the proliferation of "Indian reservations". It seems any group with an alleged history as native gets a tax exempt plot of land to build a casino and dip into the pot of goodies afforded tribes. In this case, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has an incentive to increase the roles, as it gets them more customers, thus more budget, bigger staffs, more power, etc.

I guess then we can move on to all the 501-C-3 groups that are political in nature.

Posted by: doombuggy at March 18, 2007 4:22 AM

Before anybody gets too wordy about what is going on: be sure you look up the provisions for non-profit organizations in IRS regulations. I'd hate for anybody to start up here without having viewed a source document.

This is yet another issue on which the American is dropping the ball. They know more about Mr. Clinton's sex life and how many times the President mangles "strategery" and extract smug righteousness while doing nothing.

Posted by: Radwaste at March 18, 2007 5:33 AM

The whole idea was that churches shouldn't have influence, so they could not be taxed, lest they be subject to taxation without representation.

Whatever happened to the idea that they ought to lose their exempt status if they entered into politics?

Pay to play, bitches.

Posted by: brian at March 18, 2007 6:19 AM

Give 'em tax breaks on the charitable stuff, just like the rest of us, and let them pay taxes on all the rest.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at March 18, 2007 8:32 AM

If churches *were* taxed, just think of how much more money would be available for the public good. The additional revenues might fund research seeking alternative fuel sources, for instance—or help provide universal healthcare—or help upgrade our education system, putting us back on track to lead the world in science and engineering. The money could also be used to lower our outrageous budget deficit, thereby strengthening our economy.

Posted by: Norm at March 18, 2007 10:47 AM

Well, here's a source, not the only one:

I think you'll find considerable latitude in the definitions.

Get this: any congregation may step across the street - yep, a stroll of a hundred feet or so - and go on with any political rallying they want. Democrat, Republican, Green, Communist, KKK, JBS, etc. The whole point of such laws is to get such activity away from church property so that Federal and state legal authority would not have to conflict with church activities and embroil everyone in First Amendment issues.

Note that we have difficulties defining what "religion" means. Look up "Nuwaubian" and "Scientology".

It would be neat if megachurches had to pay for their prime real estate, etc., but the entitlement mentality has set in. It's not happening... I seem to remember that the Mormons do pay taxes. ?

Posted by: Radwaste at March 18, 2007 3:03 PM

"If churches *were* taxed, just think of how much more money would be available for the public good."

Let's not go there. This would not increase the economic output of our country. It would just be a shift of money from one hand to the other, and probably a shift to a hand that would blow it in a more unproductive way.

Posted by: doombuggy at March 19, 2007 4:28 AM

Agreed Doombuggy. There are so many ways Congress could get extra revenues without taking it out on the average citizen. The main premise behind taxing religions is twofold. First, is the information and documentation of the vast sums of money. Second, it will hurt the various hucksters free floating spiritually based pyramid schemes and political agendas. Religious groups want to endorse faith based laws that will effect every US citizen. Open the books. Let us see where the money is coming from and going to. All those 'consultancy' fees to various ministers/activists. Church related endorsements of various school board candidates. Donation lists to various DC think tanks.

Also taxing religions will help in GWOT (Global War On Terror). All those Islamic religious schools, community centers and mosques will have to open the books to the IRS.

Posted by: Joe at March 19, 2007 7:19 AM

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