Should Churches Be Taxed?
A truly amazing thing happened to me not long ago. I got involved in a polite, courteous Twitter debate about religion and politics.
It started in a response thread for a video in which Trump’s faith advisor Paula White basically says Trump is anointed by God. “To say no to President Trump would be saying no to God, and I won’t do that,” she said.
A reader posted a reply arguing for taxation of churches that preach politics or tell their congregants how to vote, which is essentially what Paula White was doing. If they’re going to wade into politics, she reasoned, they should be taxed.
But really, how many churches are telling their congregants how to vote? In all the religious congregations in the land, I’d be surprised if ten percent were advocating presidential picks. “We need a way to identify and tax only the ones who preach politically,” I replied.
Another reader responded to my post with a statement that since religions “give you sets of rules to live by,” they are automatically entering the political realm.
Religions have always, since the beginning of, well, religion, told followers how to live their lives if they want to have a pleasant afterlife. These admonitions — don’t kill, don’t steal, do unto others etc. — have never been considered by anyone to be political activities.
But as the populace of the United States has become less Christian — either of no religion or of another religion — Christian rules have become less important. Most couples now live together before marriage, slavery is outlawed, all adults can vote. Abortion and same-sex marriage are legal. Changing demographics have brought numerous other religions into the country, of varying conservativeness and with their own rules.
Churches are tax-exempt in the United States partly because they are non-profit organizations that do good works, and partly to preserve the separation of church and state by keeping the government out of churches’ finances. The 1954 Johnson Amendment sought to keep churches out of government, by adding to the criteria for religion tax-exempt status that
-no substantial part of its activity may be attempting to influence legislation;
-the organization may not intervene in political campaigns.
Lately, those “sets of rules to live by” increasingly feature prohibitions against our national debate topics: abortion and gay rights. A church’s stance on these topics determines the political slant of its parishioners, and therefore churches can’t help but be political entities these days.
A “welcoming” church like the Unitarians is inherently Democratic. They invite everyone into services, regardless of sexual orientation or views on abortion. Unitarian churches have acted as sanctuaries for illegal immigrants seeking refuge.
Other Protestant religions have seen their congregations bifurcated over politics. Conservative Episcopalian churches have been leaving the denomination and joining the Anglican church, which preaches against a woman’s right to choose a legal abortion and does not perform same-sex marriage. The Anglican Church in North America states on their website:
“The Church bears witness to the truth of God’s Word and God’s design of marriage (see attached statement on “Bearing Witness”). When government oversteps its rightful authority, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).
Whose “rightful authority” is it to determine marriage law? Once, a long time ago, marriages were only a religious ceremony. But when the government began to use marriage to determine inheritance, medical jurisdiction, health care qualification and other rights, one could argue that the government’s authority began to supersede a church’s.
In November, former Vice President Joe Biden was refused Communion by a Roman Catholic church. Father Thomas Petri, a Dominican priest, wrote in support of the refusal in USA Today:
Abortion is a grave evil. This is not an issue of religion but of the fundamental human right to life. Those who publicly support abortion or enable it (whether by legislation or by cooperation) are complicit in this evil whether they are politicians or a typical parishioner in the pew.
According to Petri, the Catholic Church has the right to refuse Communion to those it feels “are no longer living in communion with the Church.” Friar Gerald Murray told Fox News that “In denying Communion to staunchly pro-choice politicians… ‘It’s really for their spiritual benefit because we’re calling them to conversion.’”
If a denomination is preaching against a legal right or denying their rituals to politicians with whom they disagree, does that constitute “attempting to influence legislation?” Or is that merely stating an opinion? Certainly, non-profits can have opinions; advocacy for a cause is literally why they are established.
The IRS has a test to determine whether a non-profit is lobbying:
An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.
The test walks the fine line between enforcement of tax-exempt status and preservation of free speech and freedom of religion. Churches are permitted to preach their “set of rules to live by” tax-free as long as they don’t mention legislation or legislators.
Churches are permitted to donate small amounts of money to legislative efforts or political actions groups. The Center for Responsive Politics states that “it is rare for a super PAC to receive all or almost all of its funding from a linked nondisclosing group,” that is, a nonprofit. Religion-adjacent groups or social welfare nonprofits, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, can donate to campaigns, but they are not churches.
Of course, churches are welcome to lobby to their hearts’ content if they are willing to pay taxes. They can raise funds for candidates; they can even field their own candidates. They just can’t have it both ways.
So, should churches be taxed because of their “sets of rules to live by”?
In a 2015 issue of The Week, Damon Linker wrote that to tax churches would, in many cases, destroy them. “It would be a form of state-sponsored persecution. Religious persecution,” he wrote. Most run on a shoestring budget and would be bankrupted by the additional expense of income and real estate taxes.
That might be a little drastic; according to the Pew Research Center, the Jewish and Hindu faiths have the wealthiest followers in America, followed by the many of the Protestant denominations. Presumably some of those churches would be able to afford a tax.
But should you tax a freedom granted by the Bill of Rights? There is some precedence for this, as gun rights advocates would argue that the licensing requirement constitutes a tax on their right to bear arms.
All (or nearly all) religions discriminate…. That’s what religions are: holistic systems of norms, practices, and beliefs that hold up some ways of living, some actions, some behaviors as better than others — with those others denounced, often in no uncertain terms.
If we forbid religions to discriminate — or empower the government to regulate how and against which behaviors a church is permitted to discriminate — we will have effectively ended religious freedom.
I really struggle with the most common form of religious discrimination today, against gay people. I don’t agree with it, and personally could never belong to a church that didn’t perform gay marriages. But I cherish my freedom to choose my own beliefs, and for that reason, I have to cherish the right of others to choose their own beliefs. I cannot discriminate against another’s religion.
So if taxing churches would wipe most of them out, then it behooves us as a nation to preserve the tax-free status of churches. If you want the ability to live your life the way you want to, you have to allow others the same ability. Which, ironically enough, means you have to allow churches to discriminate, tax-free.
Besides, ultimately a church tax wouldn’t last. After the tax bankrupts the small neighborhood congregations, only the mega-churches will be left standing, larger and richer than ever.
And they’ll quickly invest — legally — in a President and Congress who will overturn the tax.