Why Churches Should Pay Taxes

Last night, Lord Donny posted the following Tweet:

As you can probably imagine, the responses from his closest followers was overwhelmingly positive. They love the idea of giving their favorite church a bunch of free tax money for doing what a church is supposed to do. Ironically, these same assholes hate the fact that anyone gets welfare of any kind. The problem is, churches don’t pay taxes.

You see, we pay taxes every year in order to pay for services we receive. The reason poor people should receive assistance is because they pay taxes. Part of the social contract we agree to involves paying into the system so that, if we hit hard times, we can get some of that money back. The problem is, religious organizations don’t pay taxes. Therefore, by what logic does any American, let alone the “president,” calculate that churches should be “entitled” to anything from the tax system?

Does that mean I think churches shouldn’t be compensated for what they do in service to the people of the community? No, it doesn’t. They are helping the community and they should probably be compensated. However, the other half of that equation is also true. Churches benefit from government. The members who put money into the collection basket get to church via state-built and maintained roads and they benefit from building codes that keep their people safe. But they pay nothing in taxes. In other words, they don’t pay into the system, so what right do they have to ask for anything from the system? They certainly should not get FEMA money until everyone who DOES pay taxes has been served first. If there is money left over, perhaps we could consider throwing a few dollars their way, but they sure as hell aren’t “entitled” to anything. They have not invested in this country, so why should they reap benefits. Helping the poor and giving shelter to the homeless is in their job description. If they need money, they can get it from their members. The rest of us don’t have an obligation to compensate them for what they do.

That said, I would have no problem with reimbursing them for expenses if they paid taxes. Churches and religous organizations 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 and they want to be “entitled” to government money, why should they get away without 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 the Trumpies and other Republicans screaming about “religious freedom” already. However, there is nothing in the Constitution that mandates that churches be tax exempt. 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 get 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.

Since the beginning of the neocon era, 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, neither of which have anything to do with religious practice. No one’s advocating in favor of forcing churches to officiate gay weddings and no one is forcing anyone to have an abortion. 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 and women 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 surrounding tax exempt status.

If religious organizations want to act more like political organizations, they should have 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.

Of 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.

Until they pay taxes, they are “entitled” to no tax money for any purpose, no matter what Lord Donny thinks.


Also published on Medium.

11 comments

    1. Non-profits already pay some taxes, but your logic, such as it is, doesn’t make sense. For-profit corporations don’t even pay income taxes except on profit. We can make whatever rules we want.

      1. It’s quite likely I’m just slow, but I was thinking that this point here is quite possibly one of the most compelling points you’ve made. As far as I know, churches are the only entities, corporate or individual, in the United States that are able to make untaxed profit. The fact that religious organizations and nonprofit organizations are all classified as 501(c)(3) obfuscates this fact. I’m convinced, Milt. Thank you.

  1. I didn’t see them including synagogues and mosques in this that also have provided help in Texas without crying form money. I’m sure they won’t mind if the money goes to them and every other religion that provided help.

  2. A lower tax rate is an interesting idea. You might also be right that taxing them would be worth it, in the long run. I, however, do believe that most religious organizations practice some restraint, at least partially because of the tax law, so I’m just saying it seems scary to me.

    I’m not sure which SCOTUS decision about lobbying you’re referring to. I don’t recall any SCOTUS decisions that took away the tax code provisions against excessive lobbying by charitable organizations. The IRS seems to think they still exist: https://www.irs.gov/charities-non-profits/lobbying.

    You claim they are ignoring the law, but I think maybe the problem is the “substantial part” test. The IRS examines each case individually and makes up the criteria as they go along, which doesn’t fit my definition of narrow. Often, the IRS uses “percentage of all activity” for the substantial part test. This would mean that huge, international, wealthy churches can do a whole lot of lobbying before it represents a significant percentage of their overall activity. Where a very small church might be at risk just for printing out and distributing a few flyers stating their position on some piece of legislation. So, yeah, maybe you’re right that just taxing them all is the best answer. It just seems to me like more explicit and fairer tax codes with harsher penalties would also be worth exploring. Maybe both a percentage and a ceiling for the substantial part test. Maybe huge churches should be broken down into smaller tax entities by dioceses or the like, so that “substantial activity” in one area wouldn’t be buffered by all other national or even international activity. Anyway, just thinking out loud.

    1. I don’t completely disagree, but no entity should be allowed to live here without paying taxes, especially if they participate.

      I might also point out that no religion has as much impact on the federal government that Mormons have in Utah. From the perspective of an outsider, no one has that much impact on a national level. And frankly, the Utah government should have more latitude there, too. And they will, if the LDS Church is a taxpayer.

      1. And I certainly don’t completely disagree, either. Thank you for the excellent article and the food for thought.

  3. I agree 100% that religions are not entitled to government funds because of their tax-exempt status. But I believe taxing them is more dangerous than helpful. Mormon influence is dangerous enough in Utah without the leaders being able to come out and openly state that all good Mormons should be Republicans, or tell them who to vote for. Utah Democrats could lose their Mormon caucus, which wouldn’t help them win. Whatever minor bit of restraint Mormons show to be able to claim that lobbying isn’t a “substantial” part of their activities could be blown out the window if they paid taxes.

    Personally, I believe the answer is to narrow the law on how much lobbying is allowed. Somehow make it more explicit, and slim it down to slightly closer to none. And enforce it through a number of exorbitant fines before the organizations even become subject to losing their 501(c)(3) status.

    But that’s just my two cents, as one Utah resident.

    1. The law is technically already narrow. Anyone with a 501(c)(3) exemption is forbidden from getting involved in politics, but they ignore it. And that’s the point. They’re already ignoring the law, we might as well get the money. Besides, they have trillions of dollars in wealth that will never be taxed. That’s more money for schools, more money for social programs and more. It’s not just income taxes. It’s property taxes, corporate taxes and a lot of other taxes. They don’t have to pay for anything right now. If they want government money, they need to pay something into the Treasury.

      That said, we could simply have them pay a lower tax rate, IF they promise to stay out of politics and then enforce the law for once. As for lobbying, because of SCOTUS, lobbying is considered “free speech,” so as long as no money or other value changes hands, it’s legal.

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