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Taxing the churches

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The “Christian persecution” rhetoric that has become the dominant talking point of the religious right of late is often based on the notion that Christians (oddly, sometimes not extending to other religions) should be allowed to discriminate against others on the basis of their religious belief – to not have to be treated the same as secular people (or, sometimes, members of other religions).

But sometimes there is legitimacy to a claim of (at least attempted) persecution of Christianity. A recent petition on the White House “We The People” page asks that the tax exemption for churches be repealed. Taxing churches would be a major intrusion of government into religion (that is, create far more entanglement with religion than a tax exemption does). It is bad public policy, and it is specifically targeted against Christianity. It does not propose taxation for similar secular non-profit organizations, or those of other religions.

The petition itself is a masterpiece of false claims and bad writing; it is so bad that the factual inaccuracies overwhelm any chance of a reasoned discussion of the issues. Among them:

It claims that there is something unconstitutional about listing a church as a non-profit. No explanation is given for this claim, and no indication of why churches should be singled out when other non-profit organizations are not.

It suggests that tax exemptions are unconstitutional (a violation of church and state). They are not. The issue has been decided by the Supreme Court in Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, which extensively discussed both the constitutional and public policy issues.

It states that “churches influence the way American citizens vote”. That is unquestionably true, but not a violation of tax law. Churches are prohibited from discussions of upcoming elections and candidates, just as other 501(c)(3) organizations are, but not from “influencing the way citizens vote”. Many churches have gone beyond what is legally permissible, but that is a matter for enforcement of the law, not for blanket removal of all church exemptions.

The petition tries to show the economic value of taking away tax exemptions but does so by making two false claims: that the profits of megachurches average $6.5 million a year, (note the CNN story says "income", not "profits") and that $71 Billion in revenue is lost to the exemption. The writer of the petition did what so often happens: picked up a claim he saw somewhere, failed to understand what it meant or to question it, and simply stated it as fact. They are not fact.

The most ridiculous claim is that “If taxed, the national debt would be paid off.” The actual likely tax receipts at the federal level, even under very optimistic estimates that would also require changes to other federal laws and affect all non-profits, would be no more than $3.5 Billion a year. Compared to an annual deficit in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and a national debt of $17 Trillion (and rising), any contribution to “paying off the national debt” would be so small as to be unnoticeable.

The petition complains that “churches are politically affiliated”, which is certainly true, but not a reason for removing a tax exemption. Many non-profit organizations are politically affiliated, and there is no reason suggested for why churches, and only churches, should be denied that privilege.

The petition also complains that churches “are . . . businesses”, so should lose their exemptions. It is true that many churches have assets, subsidiaries or activities that function as businesses (as do many other non-profit organizations). However, those are taxed – they are not tax exempt – under current law. The petition fails to recognize this.

By any rational assessment, the petition is wrong on its facts, wrong on the law, wrong on the Constitution, and wrong as a matter of public policy. It can easily be argued that some (apparently small) percentage of churches have egregious financial policies and misuse their privileges. Still, however much atheists (presumably) may want to attack Christianity, taking away a tax exemption from all churches is not the way to go about it.

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