A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Church Will Not Lose Its Tax-Exempt Status and Here's Why

In light of the Supreme Court's decision on gay marriage, some on the secular left are now suggesting that religious organizations should not be given preference in reference to the tax code. Mark Oppenheimer has recently written:
Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It's time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses.
The purpose of this post is not to argue the merits or the lack thereof of tax-exemption. If you want to express your views on that, I suggest you head over to Joel Watts' blog. He has written a post on the subject. Instead I want to briefly outline the reasons why charitable organizations will not lose their tax exempt status, at least in my lifetime. (Religious conservatives, can breath easy now.)

First, unlike the issue of gay marriage on which conservative and liberal Christians are deeply divided, they will become a united and powerful front if the government attempts to force them into paying taxes. Many Americans, regardless of the latest polls and demographic claims, are still connected to religious organizations, even if that connection is superficial. Because of this, the Democratic and Republican parties will not split along party lines in this decision. Anyone who proposes such legislation has no hope of even getting it to a vote on Capitol Hill.

Second, politicians who are too beholding to their constituency will not risk getting voted out of office, even if they quietly believe removing said tax-exempt status from religious organizations is a good thing.

Third, even though we seem to becoming more and more secular as a country, government always needs to be careful about being perceived to be beating up on religious people who really want to do some good in the world. It's rather like dissing mom and apple pie.

Fourth, and finally, if religious institutions were to lose their tax-exempt status, the burden would clearly make it difficult for many small churches to stay open. We must not forget about the fact that the vast majority of churches in the United States have an average attendance of 100 persons or less on Sunday morning. Mega churches are the exception, not the rule. (I cannot speak to the make-up of synagogues and mosques.) I can guarantee that few politicians want to die on that hill.

And that leads me to one last thing I would like to say in response to Oppenheimer's article. While he actually makes some good points that I think are worthy of consideration, such as the IRS's incompetence in deciding what a religion is that deserves tax-exempt status (one of many incompetencies of the Internal Revenue Service) he says something of which he knows not what he speaks:
Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argues that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can't say. But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We'd have fewer church soup kitchens-- but countries that truly care about poverty don't rely on churches to run soup kitchens.
Certainly, there is a place for government in reference to charity and social work. Government can and does do some good things in these matters; but no one does charity, and I dare say, disaster relief better than religious institutions; and for those who think otherwise, I have a two-word response... "Hurricane Katrina."

And, by the way, Mr. Oppenheimer, the church is not here to serve you and the state when it works for you, and then step out of the way when you think we're in the way. Our mission is bigger, more significant, and will last much longer than you and yours... just sayin.'

"Nuff said.


Margie Bryce said...

This is interesting...

Meanwhile, here is an OPINION article in Time Magazine.


Allan R. Bevere said...


That's the article I referred to in my post.

Anonymous said...

Great points, Dr. Bevere. I have thought of two more that might be relevant.

If churches start paying taxes, what does that do to the separation of church and state? What sort of (unwanted?) influence would that allow churches to claim in the political process (supporting and endorsing candidates, for example)?

Similarly, if the government takes away the tax exempt status only of churches that oppose the Supreme Court's decision, does that violate the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment? Doesn't it put the government in the business of deciding what religion is?

Unknown said...

Dorothy thought Catholic Workers should avoid non-profit status because they should submit to the state for permission to do the works of mercy.

The way religious non-profits function in the United States is a form of establishmentism. As well, if the federal government took away tax exempt status, states and municipalities could still give tax exempt status. If small churches had to pay property tax, that would get them. If donations were taxable, that would not.

Thus, there is a radical reason to get out of tax exempt status. Not to mention the fact of giving to caesar what is caesar's and God what is God's. By being tax exempt, churches make people using tithing as an excuse to give less to Caesar, thus taking away from the spiritual discipline of the practice.

Luke said...

>> We'd have fewer church soup kitchens-- but countries that truly care about poverty don't rely on churches to run soup kitchens.

Germany apparently makes extensive use of voluntary organizations, including religious organizations, to administer its welfare system. I'm not sure anyone would accuse Germany of not truly caring about poverty.