Their article appears in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, an organization of nontheists. U.S. tax law grants religious groups and other nonprofits the exemptions because of their charitable nature.
And while the authors do not claim theirs is a comprehensive or unbiased appraisal, their findings have raised eyebrows in the nontheist community, which has long sought to eliminate the tax exemptions on the grounds that they unfairly favor religious institutions.
“The issue of religious tax preferment is especially relevant now because the number of Americans living outside any religious tradition continues to grow,” said Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry’s editor. “That underscores the unfairness of taxing all Americans to subsidize religious institutions that only some Americans utilize.”
But Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said that Americans have made a democratic decision that religious institutions are good for our communities — believers and atheists alike.
“Whether it is the Quakers opposing slavery, Reverend King arguing for equality, or a Catholic soup kitchen feeding and sheltering all in need,” Rienzi said, “our history is full of examples confirming the great public benefit of our religious diversity.”
If history is a guide, the Free Inquiry article and any call for tax reform it may engender are not likely to have much effect. Since the 1950s, there have been several attempts to quantify religious tax exemptions — all of them wildly varied in their conclusions — and only a handful of legal challenges to those exemptions. Most were unsuccessful.
“It is something lots of people have been against, but not very much has been done about it,” Flynn said. “Coming up with hard numbers has been so difficult. But if there are going to be good discussions about this, we need good data.”
Cragun and his co-authors — Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega — examined federal tax exemption laws, and some state and local laws, specifically in their home state of Florida. They conclude:
* States bypass an estimated $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes.
* Capital gains tax exemptions for religious institutions may be as much as $41 million a year.
* U.S. clergy may claim as much as $1.2 billion in tax exemptions annually via the parsonage allowance.
But Cragun, who specializes in the sociological study of religion, said the article is not a call to completely revoke the tax-exempt status of religious organizations. Rather, he would suggest tax exemptions only for nonprofit organizations — religious or secular — whose services the government would have to supply if those organizations disappeared.