As a product of Christian and Jewish families with neither one particularly vying for dominance, I never believed in God. We’re all destined to be worm food, and I’m fine with that.
I’ve often gazed at the giant cathedrals in New York and thought: shouldn’t churches become housing or hospitals instead of vast, hollowed-out mansions? Shouldn’t they stop bleeding money from their congregants, whose cash would be better spent on our public schools? And for the love of the Nothingness That Awaits Us, shouldn’t churches pay taxes?
Last month, Congress started to gut President Donald J. Trump’s 2017 tax reform. One of the hotly debated provisions is a 21 percent tax on nonprofit “fringe benefits,” which include things like employee free parking and mass transit fare. Taxpayers are currently footing these perks for churches, synagogues, temples as well as all nonprofits, and both parties apparently want to keep it that way.
I don’t want to tax Goodwill employees for their parking specifically, but it bothers me a lot that I have to pay for Reverand Bill’s bus fare.
Could it be that I actually almost agree with Trump on something?
Turns out, I’m centuries late to a raging, ongoing debate that seems to be at an ideological impasse. Not taxing churches has had great economic and social consequences — but taxing churches would, too. And as it turns out, taxing isn’t even the crux of the debate. Questions of accountability, abuse, and poverty have to be addressed before we even get there.
Churches have been exempt from paying property taxes since the colonial days, a tradition inspired by medieval English law. In 1864, U.S. churches were officially lumped in with “charitable” organizations, exempting them from income tax as well. The Internal Revenue Service grants all churches 501(c)(3) status, like other U.S. nonprofits. In addition to property and income tax exemptions, taxpayers subsidize clergy housing and perks like free parking.
There have been a few voices of protest about the exemptions over the years, but nothing major. According to Ram Cnaan, the director of the Program for Religion and Social Policy Research at the University of Pennsylvania, politicians never stand on a church-taxing pedestal for long.
“Usually it’s local politicians that say ‘let’s go tax churches,’ and then [the issue] disappears,” said Cnaan. “It never goes to major public debate. It never goes into a national TV debate or to the candidates for presidency. They don’t touch it because they don’t want to lose votes.”
For a pearl-clutching atheist, the tax revenue churches receive is staggering. In New York alone, churches have lined their coffers with at least $756.2 million in exemptions in 2019 so far — and this is probably an undercount, according to Doug Turetsky, the chief of staff at the Independent Budget Office of New York City.
“City assessors don’t really have much incentive to do a rigorous assessment of these properties because they are exempt,” Turetsky wrote in an email to The Outline.
For a pearl-clutching atheist, the tax revenue churches receive is staggering.
I thought federal numbers on church tax exemptions would be easy to find, but it turns out that there is no reliable system of accountability in place. A 2012 independent study from the University of Tampa found that taxpayers are subsidizing about $71 billion per year in church exemptions, but that is also an undercount by many billions of dollars.
“If churches want to be exempt from taxation, they should have to play by the same rules as everyone else,” Nick Fish, the president of the national nonprofit American Atheists, told me. “American Atheists, and every other secular 501(c)(3), has to pay for a complete audit of our financials every year, submit IRS Form 990 and a number of state forms, and disclose our largest donors to the federal government. Churches don't have to do any of that.”
It was news to me that churches are not required to disclose their finances. For other nonprofits, all of this information is available online, including employee salaries.
Bids for church transparency have failed in the past. The nonprofit Freedom from Religion Foundation sued the IRS after arguing that churches should be held to the same transparency standards as other 501(c)(3) organizations. The Seventh Circuit judge ultimately disagreed with the group’s reading of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, and ruled against the group in March.
Where there is government indifference, there is abuse. Scientology is perhaps the most famous megachurch to receive tax-exempt status through unsavory, secretive means, but the opportunity for abuse ranges widely. So-called “prosperity pastors” can exclude giant housing allowances from taxable income. American Atheists is also concerned about illegal politicking, especially because Trump is trying to chip away at the 1954 Johnson Amendment, which prohibits nonprofits and churches from engaging in partisan politics.
“We worry about the possibility of endless streams of dark money being funneled through churches,” Fish said. “...Why would a billionaire donate to a Super PAC when they could donate to a church, get the tax write-off, and still influence elections?”
All of this is certainly an argument for more oversight, but not necessarily for taxing churches. In fact, if we tax churches, they could all become Coca-Cola sponsored Trump campaign headquarters. The nonprofit status, in theory at least, protects churches from contamination.
Then there is the charity side to all of this.
According to Cnaan, U.S. churches do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to social services, such as meals for the hungry, day care, blood-pressure screenings, healthy diet programs, addiction treatment, and more. Seventy percent of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings take place in a congregational space, for example. Nine out of 10 congregations offer charitable services of some kind. Cnaan found in one study that one-third of the social and behavioral services in Philadelphia were being performed by churches.
“You don’t see this in other countries,” Cnaan said. “Governments in places like Europe and Israel are much more generous.”
U.S. churches do a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to social services — nine out of 10 congregations offer charitable services of some kind.
For the government to swoop in and start taxing these congregations would have disastrous consequences for the health and well-being of the country’s poor, according to Cnaan.
He also cited his 2017 study of three different cities, which found that congregations were contributing up to $2.5 million a year each to the economy, thanks to things like food bank expenditures, busing, service expenses, and more.
I told Cnaan I would be in favor of taxing a church’s religious components, like the amenities for services and Sunday School, while exempting their charitable activities, like food pantries. Why not? Some churches already pay property taxes on things like rented banquet halls, according to Turetksy. How hard could it be to carve it up a bit more?
But Cnaan said that prayer elements have a huge social benefit, too, “The rate of illnesses, the rate of drug abuse, smoking, and crime are much lower among people who attend congregation regularly,” Cnaan said. “The highest level of volunteering is among people who attend congregation. I look at it as, if [churches] didn’t do what they’re doing, there would be more crime, more hungry people, more homeless people. And either we as a society will see more destitution, or we pay more taxes.”
By now, every liberal argument for taxing churches has a time-honored rebuttal. For example, you could see the exemptions as a breach of church and state — our government taxes are supporting religious organizations, after all. The opposition argues that taxing churches would be the true breach: if you tax churches, governments can interfere in church affairs and make financial decisions for the religious community.
Then there’s the classic: “How about non-profit theaters? Do we tax them just because we don’t like Hamlet?” And “why should all congregations be punished for the abusive bigoted actions of a few?”
The impasse here is annoying if you want to, say, pick a side and write an opinion piece. But in the end, the whole tax-or-no-tax argument is a distraction from the deeper, more alarming issues: first, church finances aren’t getting enough oversight and are therefore ripe for abuse, and it leaves us unable to conduct an accurate cost/benefit analysis. Second — newsflash — our government isn’t doing its job, leaving churches to do the brunt of social-service work.
On a very fundamental level, I still don’t believe that I should pay for Reverend Bill’s bus fare. Trump and I agree on that tiny, very specific point from his original 2017 tax reform. Churches have had eons of free rides in spite of abuses and widespread persecution. In a functional, fair, and modern society, religion wouldn’t have to be anywhere near as lionized as charity or the arts. It would be such a relief if atheist politicians would come out of the closet already and fight for a better country.
Until all of these issues are addressed, “tax-or-no-tax” can’t easily be reduced to a Facebook argument with your super-religious great-uncle.