Saturday, May 26, 2012

Tax the Churches

Because it's unconstitutional. It will be obvious to rational people that exempting religious organizations from paying any taxes is a clear case of government "respecting an establishment of religion." But throughout history we have seen many otherwise-lucid thinkers insist otherwise, including Supreme Court justices who uphold biblical views when their taxpayer-funded jobs explicitly require them to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.

Because religious organizations are not accountable to the citizens who subsidize them. If churches engage in charitable work that benefits the community, do all citizens have an interest in supporting such endeavors with, say, various tax exemptions? Of course. This is the sound basis for tax exemptions for non-profit organizations, whose activities and finances are subject to IRS audit and public scrutiny. In the case of religious organizations, however, the books are closed.

Non-church groups receiving tax exemptions must annually file a detailed 990 statement itemizing where the money has gone. The IRS automatically waives the 990 requirement for churches.

So what if churches do not engage in charitable work? Or do so far less efficiently, effectively - or charitably - than the many non-profits or government programs we do not subsidize in this way? Religious organizations can and do take great advantage of their tax-free status. Many amass great wealth and vast media empires - all of it off the tax rolls. The point is that religious organizations can and do espouse doctrines of intolerance and hatred, filter funds to foreign enemies, and cause far more harm than good in their communities. They are nevertheless entirely tax-exempt, their finances never scrutinized, because they qualify as "religious organizations."

Tax-exempt status is a privilege - not a right - and churches should be held to the same standards as other non-profits - if not higher standards.

Because it is easily and routinely abused. Consider the proliferation of phony churches as a tax dodge. An IRS attorney cites a brothel "church," where sisterly love is offered to male parishioners in exchange for donations. In Hardenburgh, New York several years ago, 235 of the 239 property owners in that town were granted religious tax exemption because the properties of the owners were made branches of the mail-order "Universal Life Church." In Wisconsin, hotels, pay parking lots, farms, and communion wafer bakeries are among the church holdings that are tax exempt. Overall, at least $4.2 billion in tax-exempt religious property now exists in that state alone. And the monumental moral corruption of the Catholic Church as evidenced by the many sexual abuse scandals is particularly galling when one contemplates the vast (and covert) wealth of that particular enterprise.

It's a racket, and it costs taxpayers even more money to monitor, uncover and fight the abuse it invites - none of which would be necessary if such unenforceable loopholes in our tax code never existed.

Because it costs you and me billions. We are not talking chump change here. Consider that for every tax dollar a religious organization does not pay, you and I pay it on its behalf. Many are among the wealthiest organizations in the world: by 1971, the amount of real and personal property owned by U.S. churches was approx. $110 billion. In New York City alone, the amount was $3 billion in 1989. A 1986 estimate showed religious income in that year of approx. $100 billion, or about five times the income of the five largest corporations in the U.S.  All tax free.

Because the founders got it right. These thoughtful men were conscentious students of history, many of them witnessing firsthand the bloody devastation wrought wherever religion entangled itself with government on foreign shores - and our own. The founders saw that without a strict separation between religion and government, the same tragedy would inevitably be replayed here.
"The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries." -James Madison
Because it is fundamentally unjust. Not all religious organizations enjoys tax breaks, only those our government deems legitimate. Is government in the business of deciding what is or is not a legitimate religion? Doesn't every instance where government makes such a determination amount to "respecting an establishment of religion?" Should the taxes of non-religious citizens be higher to subsidize every church, synagogue, and mosque in town? Should working women pay taxes to subsidize clergy and other employees' paychecks, when such positions are overwhelmingly - and legally - restricted to men?

The current scheme is unfair and unnecessary. Churches can and should pay taxes, just like everybody else.

Because our country is not supposed to be a theocracy. It is not a new idea: tax exemption for religious organizations has been debated since the birth of our great nation. istorically, far from the accepted status quo, the subsidy of religious organizations via carte blanche tax exemptions has troubled patriots and conscientious religious citizens alike. Since our Consititution was written our nation has witnessed an overall upsurge in the deliberate mingling of government with religion, to the point that the two institutions at times have appeared nearly indistinguishable. Perhaps emboldened by the cowardice and arrogance displayed by our nation's highest court and the apathy of so many citizens, religious zealots now hold our highest offices and have infiltrated every single branch of government, upholding biblical views when their taxpayer-funded jobs explicitly require them to uphold the Constitution of the United States instead.

Because it makes no sense. To deny that tax exemption is a meaningful public subsidy is to put forth an absurd proposition: just consider what your personal financial picture would look like if you never paid any taxes. Yet it is exactly this type of ludicrous logic on which religious tax exemptions have been upheld time and again by our courts and congresses. See LAW for more.
"Unique among the nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. We have no king but Jesus."
-Fmr. Attorney General John Ashcroft

"[I]ntentional governmental advancement of religion is sometimes required by the Free Exercise Clause."
-Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia

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