David Niose is the legal director of the Washington-based American Humanist Association and author of “Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason” and “Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans.” Follow him on Twitter: @ahadave
Recent polling shows that almost one in four Americans, and more than one-third of those aged 18 to 33, now claim no religious affiliation. Back when virtually everyone subscribed to a religious faith (the unaffiliated number polled in the single digits for most of the 20th century) an across-the-board tax break for all religions was arguably fair — or at least inoffensive. But times have changed, and so have attitudes about the extraordinary perks that churches enjoy.
Perhaps the most egregious example of religious privilege under the tax code is the so-called parsonage exemption. Under current tax law, “ministers of the gospel” may deduct virtually all costs associated with housing from their income. At its worst, the exemption subsidizes the unseemly: televangelists enjoying multimillion-dollar estates on the taxpayer dime. But even in a more ordinary context, the allowance represents an indefensible benefit running to organized religion, subsidized by taxpayers.
Another gratuity to churches is the real estate tax exemption, which denies cash-strapped municipalities revenue that could be used for public safety, road repairs and other services. Like everyone else in town, churches benefit from services provided by municipal governments, but in most areas are exempt from property taxation simply because they are churches.
Some will defend this extraordinary handout by arguing that churches do much good through charity work. Even if this were true — and it certainly isn’t the case for every church — it hardly justifies tax exemption. Many individuals and corporations “do good” as well but still pay their property taxes.
Moreover, relying on churches to provide social services is hardly the mark of an enlightened society. A homeless person who happens to be a non-Christian should not have to depend on a local Christian church for help. In a modern pluralistic society, public resources should be available for social services. Instead, in America we use the tax code to prop up churches under the pretext that religious charity is essential.
Any real estate owner expects to pay property taxes, and churches should be no different. If churches claim that they cannot afford to be taxed, one must question how they afford real estate in the first place. A typical church that owns property has hundreds of members or more who could join together to cover the tax bill. Maybe those that don’t have such membership and support shouldn’t own real estate.
As we reassess religious privilege in America, even the notion of having churches pay income taxes should be on the table. Critics say requiring churches to report income and expenses would somehow be an improper intrusion, but this argument fails under scrutiny. Such reporting, which virtually every person and organization in America does routinely, is minimally intrusive and no great burden. It’s hard to see how such basic accountability would be detrimental to the public good, though we can be sure that religious leaders, from televangelists preying on society’s most vulnerable to the nation’s leading bishops, will argue otherwise.
As Americans increasingly gravitate away from organized religion, it only makes sense that public policy will follow suit. Government need not be hostile to religion, but neither should it bestow upon it special privileges. The nonreligious are now one of the largest categories of religious demographics and growing, and that means changes are on the horizon in the business of religion.
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