It’s Past Time to Tax Religion

RobertsonChurches have become increasingly political in recent years, and that’s fine. There is a right to free speech and all. However, if they insist on inserting themselves into politics, why should they be allowed to get away with not paying taxes? The rest of us don’t get to do that, whether or not we’re religious. Is a church entitled to more rights than any member of that church?

I can hear Republicans screaming about “religious freedom” already. However, there is nothing in the Constitution that mandates that churches be tax exempt. Besides, paying taxes is patriotic; it’s how we get a better country. It’s how we keep the capitalist system going. And again; since their congregants pay taxes, why should the people who preach to them get away with paying nothing, especially if they’re going to try to tell them how to vote?

The single greatest example of religious hypocrisy has to be the concept of the right wing “Christian” church. Given that Jesus was pretty strongly progressive, how does that work, exactly? Where in the New Testament does Jesus tell politicians to deny health care to poor people? Why do so many supposedly “Christian” churches support spending cuts on programs most needed by the poor, while happily handing extremely rich companies like BP and ExxonMobil billions of extra dollars every year? Is it too much to ask that religions that demand things from government at least demonstrate some level of scriptural support for their claimed religious privilege?

In fact, a case could be made that religious groups shouldn’t be allowed to skate on taxes because the Constitution actually forbids any religion getting special treatment from the government. Of course, a tax exemption to those religious groups who actually practice a separation of church and state is not unreasonable; keeping them separate serves a purpose. However, an increasing number of churches are directly involved in the political process, and that shouldn’t cut it with anyone. And the politicians who gave them an exemption should also be under greater scrutiny, especially given the level of blasphemy coming from the self-described “Christians” in government.

It’s blasphemy, for example to believe that God told George W. Bush to “shock and awe” Iraq just to get one guy. Bush committed blasphemy when he called the invasion of Afghanistan a “crusade,” until someone reminded him that wasn’t wise. It is also blasphemy to claim God told the Bushies to hand out hundreds of billions in no-bid contracts to their biggest supporters at the same time they were cutting jobs programs and SNAP. And there is no way God told Republicans to let the people of New Orleans die in a flood. Why are we essentially paying religious groups to violate their religion? According to the storybook these fake “Christians” claim belief in, God doesn’t really like the rich all that much, but yet, Republicans love the bastards.

Jesus KFCAt what point do we say “enough” and enforce the Constitutional separation of church and state? We have to demand that politicians leave their faith at the door of the Capitol once again. The First Amendment guarantees the right of everyone to believe anything they want, but that’s not the end of the deal. In return for being allowed to believe whatever they want and for keeping government out of their religious business, religious groups also promise to keep their personal religion out of the public debate. That is supposed to be the bargain that was struck in return for zero taxes. Tax-free status is a courtesy, not a requirement.

Since the neocon era began, the wall of separation between church and state has fallen, and it needs to be rebuilt. We can’t afford to give huge tax breaks to rich people and rich churches at the same time. And not only are religious groups failing to abide by the simple rules asked of them, Christian religions are allowed to have more influence in government than all other religions, which is in direct violation of the Constitution that all politicians swore an oath to uphold, including Republicans.

As a result of this unconstitutional power, we have seen the spectacle of religious groups advocating in favor of laws designed to take civil rights away from certain groups of people. The Mormon and Catholic Churches, among many others, have actively engaged in political campaigns to ban gay marriage and reproductive choice. What does that have to do with religious practice? No one’s advocating in favor of forcing churches to officiate gay weddings. Besides, since Jesus actually told his  followers to separate the sin from the sinner and leave judgment to God, they’re actually acting against their own stated religious beliefs by denying same-sex couples their rights. The denial of civil rights to anyone, including those whom you have judged as sinners, is a political position, and that is against the rules. When religious organizations act more like political organizations, they should be forced to give up their tax exemption and start paying up. The laws already exist; churches have a choice; they can either teach religion or involve themselves in the political arena, but not both. If individual congregants want to send a check to an anti-gay marriage group, fine; they’re tax-paying citizens and they’re entitled to be as bigoted and narrow-minded as they’d like. But religious groups and churches cannot be allowed to hide behind a veneer of religion to get out of paying taxes.

Religious organizations who act more like political organizations should lose their tax exemption, and pay up. The laws already exist. If individual congregants want to send a check to an anti-gay marriage group, fine; they’re tax-paying citizens, and they’re entitled to be as bigoted and narrow-minded as they want. But they don’t get a tax exemption for doing so, anyway.

CaesarsOf course, one option is to stop the pretense altogether, and just send religious groups a tax bill. Again, a tax exemption is a courtesy, and it’s gotten us a national discourse in which false prophets increasingly use religious imagery to quash debate on issues that affect everyone. However, if we’re going to continue to perpetuate this pretense, force them to follow the rules, and start stripping the tax-exempt status from any church or religious group that actively engages in the political arena. If churches insist on inserting themselves into the political process, they should pay for the privilege. Make them pay taxes.

One comment

  1. I agree in principle, but I do public policy – yes, lobbying even – for a large PROGRESSIVE faith organization. We represent a mainline, progressive set of Protestant denominations and congregations. We are not a church but do mobilize congregational members to do things such as stand up for the poor, support marriage equality, stand against racism and bias in all matters, support women’s right to choose, and on and on and on. We were created precisely to DO that in obedience to the law. We are regulated and taxed – yes we do pay some taxes – the same as the ACLU. the same as Planned Parenthood. The law requires us to have separate and distinct organizations, a 501-c-3 that may provide educational information on public concerns, and a 501-c-4 that permits us to do advocacy with a registered lobbyist on specific legislation, on ballot issues, etc. so long as it is not ever partisan. We operate as ACLU and PP do in this respect. The law permits churches to engage in advocacy related to their mission (our being, of course, perfectly wonderful) up to 5% of their budget. We respect that. They support our work so that we, lawfully chartered, may do MORE and may expend our full budget on both education and advocacy. There support of our work is by individuals and, in small donations, some congregations.

    Now, were that how the religious RIGHT did things, you’d have a far more balanced and fair set of operations. We know, beyond any doubt, that some congregations entertain partisan ballot guides on candidates, that their groups like ours don’t bother with a c-4 and use the c-3 money that is both tax exempt AND tax deductible which c-4 money is not. They lobby from the pulpit on partisan concerns, They violate these laws and call themselves ‘bold’. Well, the reason they are not prosecuted for it is that witnesses have to have been physically present at the time of the violation or have other evidence that is irrefutable, and most of the people in the pews LIKE what is said so don’t report it. This is actually a great safeguard since one of the notorious cases of IRS prosecution was against a liberal church based on a newspaper report, not a personal presence. That cannot happen.

    But I hate to tell you that the work of the Catholic Church and the Mormons was also perfectly legal. Why? Proposition 8 was non partisan (passed the test) AND neither institution put out more than 5% of their budgets to pass it.

    Now – how do we tax a company such as Pat Robertson’s “mininstry”? Well, they need first to be audited, but secondly – they are NOT A CHURCH.

    The people we all despise are largely NOT churches but legally incorporated advocacy organizations, and unless and until we can prove they use tax exempt, tax deductible funds for advocacy and lobbying and what should be done by PACs, we won’t get anywhere.

    But when you say “tax the churches” remember your ALLIES are out here doing the work you want. Taxing churches might result in the total demise of the small, progressive ones and will leave the Megachurches with ultra conservative ideology pretty much unscathed. It’s a tricky line one walks on this issue. Should some have their tax exempt status revoked? Sure. But that requires proof – as it should. So find it. Be there. Bear witness so to speak. Because it won’t help if you tar all of us with the same brush and kill off your allies and churches that are pretty much apolitical. It will change if and only if people do the work of getting the evidence the IRS needs. That is the work of democracy.

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