General Question

iamthemob's avatar

Should religious organizations/churches be stripped of any tax exempt status?

Asked by iamthemob (17176points) January 1st, 2011

Considering the high political involvement of church generally, and the influence such organizations have over memberships, what is the benefit of allowing a general exemption for religions? How do people understand the exemptions to work?

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67 Answers

jaytkay's avatar

I used to argue that making them tax exempt was un-Constitutional in the US. It requires the government to decide what is and what is not religion.

But someone pointed out to me that they could simply register as not-for-profits and remain tax-free. So it’s moot in my mind.

SavoirFaire's avatar

The exemptions are supposed to conditional on the religious organizations in question remaining non-political. Insofar as they fail this condition, their tax exemptions are to be removed.

ragingloli's avatar

To paraphrase a point heard on the Atheist Experience:
Religions should not get tax exemption because they are religions, because that violates the separation of church and state, as it gives the power to, and forces the state to decide which group constitues a religion and which is not.
they should apply for tax exemption like any other charitable organisation.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@jaytkay That’s actually already how the statute works. The government realized it would be against the law to make a special exemption for religious organizations, so the law was specifically formulated in terms such that religious organizations “just so happen” to be a subset of the groups covered.

@ragingloli See above.

iamthemob's avatar

@jaytkay – I wonder about the not-for-profits myself. However, I think that there are some benefits to requiring such registration as it would potentially be more transparent. Potentially.

@ragingloli – yeah, what you said.

jaytkay's avatar

Churches do have to register.

For example, you don’t simply toss the property tax bill in the chapel wastebasket. You have to provide extensive documentation before they give you tax exemption status.

And this is from the IRS:

“Churches and religious organizations, like many other
charitable organizations, qualify for exemption from
federal income tax under IRC section 501©(3) and
are generally eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions.
To qualify for tax-exempt status, such an
organization must meet the following requirements
(covered in greater detail throughout this publication):
■ the organization must be organized and operated
exclusively for religious, educational, scientific, or other
charitable purposes,
■ net earnings may not inure to the benefit of any
private individual or shareholder,
■ no substantial part of its activity may be attempting
to influence legislation,
■ the organization may not intervene in political
campaigns, and
■ the organization’s purposes and activities may not
be illegal or violate fundamental public policy.”

iamthemob's avatar

@jaytkay – the problem, of course, is with “substantial.” Considering the vast wealth associated with most major religious denominations, and considering the ability to influence adherents…what’s substantial in terms of the amount of influence the organization yields may not correlate to being substantial in terms of overall revenue.

Basically, I would view requiring the church to form individual, purpose-oriented 501©(3)s as sort of a trust-busting exercise ensuring a way to track revenue and influence.

mrlaconic's avatar

I believe Large churches should have to pay taxes. For example there is a church in the Seattle area called the city church where they have four or five campuses and have a television crew come in so they can have there service showed on TV and also broadcast live to the other campuses…. thats a little to much money to be making if they can afford to do that.

jaytkay's avatar

I would view requiring the church to form individual, purpose-oriented 501©(3)s as sort of a trust-busting exercise ensuring a way to track revenue and influence.

Maybe, but in a country where Focus on the Family can get away with claiming it’s not substantially dedicated to influencing legislation, I don’t see a rational approach coming soon.

crisw's avatar

Yes, they should. And all tax deductions that support religion- such as the parsonage exemption. should be removed as well.

CaptainHarley's avatar

“The power to tax is the power to destroy.” Freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Constitution. Ergo, thou shalt not tax churches.

jaytkay's avatar

Taxing churches would not limit anyone’s freedom to worship anymore than taxing newspapers limits freedom of the press.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – You’ll need to expand on that. There is no constitutional right for religious institutions to be free from taxation. If that were true, they would not have to qualify under 501©(3) regulations – they would simply not be taxed.

Freedom of religion is a prohibition on the establishment of religion and from inhibiting anyone’s free practice. In fact, by denying certain groups application for the status, the government is arguably violating the first amendment because they are privileging established religions over “new” ones. Further, you must put forward an argument why one needs to invest any money at all in order to worship.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Of course it would limit freedom of religion, Jay. Please explain how you feel it would not.

CaptainHarley's avatar


But there IS most assuredly a constitutional right to freedom of religion. If your religion involves meeting with other believers in your faith, then the government restricting that in any way would violate the Constitution.

Contrary to what many of you have apparently been taught, freedoms are NOT granted by the government; freedoms are inherent. It is government which derives its very right to even EXIST from the constent of the governed.

jaytkay's avatar

Of course it would limit freedom of religion, Jay. Please explain how you feel it would not..

I compared it to freedom of the press. News organizations pay taxes. So can churches.

Math321's avatar

Taxes should not be placed on churches.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Apples and oranges. Journalists do not worship the written word, and members of religious organizations are usually not paid for what they do.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I actually agree with @CaptainHarley here. Taxing any honest church is likely to cause severe problems for its solvency and interfere with its various missions. What I have problems with are those organizations which are essentially businesses or political action committees with a veneer of religious fervor. If we eliminated the tax exemptions for these organizations, I doubt the remaining churches would be that worrisome.

And this, of course, is the distinction with news organizations. Those parts of the press subjected to taxes are businesses and are meant to be businesses. This is not to say that I disagree with @iamthemob when he says that there is no constitutional right for religious institutions to be free from taxation. There certainly is not. But there is a reason for not taxing charitable and not-for-profit organizations—the legal category under which churches fit in order to avoid taxation—that does not apply to businesses.

SavoirFaire's avatar

“That which has no existence cannot be destroyed—that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense—nonsense upon stilts.”
—Jeremy Bentham

I’m sorry, @CaptainHarley, but I can’t agree with you on the matter of where our rights come from. As it happens, I was taught that our liberties are inherent; but I have come to see that this notion is really quite ludicrous. And at any rate, it is at best irrelevant. We could argue all day about whether or not the United States is a legitimate state in moral terms, but the sorts of rights at play in discussions like this one are purely political rights. And those rights are an artifice created along with the state, and needed only because there is a state.

jaytkay's avatar

Apples and oranges. Journalists do not worship the written word, and members of religious organizations are usually not paid for what they do.

Freedom of the press is in the constitution. I never implied it was worship.

And the fact that there are some volunteers is irrelevant. There are also plenty of religious figures living extremely well off the tax-deductible donations of their flocks.

poisonedantidote's avatar

It’s a tricky one, but in my opinion, yes they should have to pay taxes. The reason for my opinion is different from most you will hear, and I’m sure plenty of people will disagree, but I have thought about it for quite some time over the years, and there is little to no chance you will change my mind on the subject.

Normally I try to be as polite as possible, while still making the point I want to make, but in this case, I will need to be blunt, and some religion bashing will be inevitable.

Note: I am talking globally here, not just about the UK or USA or wherever, taxing religion would be something I would want to see across the globe.

Anyway, here goes:

I am going to claim, that the sole purpose for the existence of most religions, is to control the masses and to profit financially from them. I am also going to claim that, in part, government is there to do the same. With this in mind, I would tax all religious organizations, simply to prevent a “buddy-buddy you scratch my back I scratch yours” tag-team of control over the population. There is simply too much corruption in both religion and politics for the two to be allowed to be so friendly.

Furthermore, taxing religions would be bad for religious organizations, and therefore good for my own personal agenda.

Now, as some of you no doubt already know, I am an atheist. However, while I disagree and often see some religious beliefs as bordering on madness, I still respect the peoples right to believe whatever they want to believe. So I have not formed this opinion lightly. But after quite some consideration, I have concluded that taxing religious organizations, while indeed damaging to the organization, does not in any way shape or form prevent people from believing what they want to believe, neither does it prevent them form gathering.

Taxing religion would help raise revenue, and would also prevent a lot of the nefarious things religions get up to. Such as: televangelism, hiring lawyers to get them out of child rape related legal trouble. As well as accumulating collections of treasures and valuables, treasures that would be much better off sold to museums so to raise money to help the poor and feed the hungry.

Taxing religion would also make it harder for religion to interfere with education or politics. It would also help to slow down the spread of religion via missionaries and other means.

I really can’t see any down side to taxing religious organizations, but I’m sure the heads of religious organizations would not like the idea one bit.

As a final side thought on the matter, I find it highly interesting that most religions are against suicide, and so are most governments. Please tell me it’s not because the dead don’t pay taxes or put money in the collection plates. ... Yea, we should tax them allright.

CaptainHarley's avatar


You completely miss the point of extending your comparison of freedoms of Press and Religion. This Nation was largely founded by those who had fled religions persecution in their home countries. When the Constitution was drafted, it was they and their descendents who insisted that freedom of religion be included. It is there. You can still see it. And, as I have been at pains to explain, the power to tax is the power to destroy. To be allowed to tax religious activity would to be allowed to destroy it.

As to those claiming that religious leaders are living the life of Riley, you have obviously never worked with smaller churches or volunteers working with the poor, or any of the tens of thousands of other unheralded religious workers. It’s because they are the exceptions to the rule that high-living televanglists get all the press. I despise them.

iamthemob's avatar

I think that this has taken a turn which, although reasonable, isn’t really the issue.

Elimination of a religious-based exemption status would not result in the taxation of religious organizations. As it was initially mentioned, there might not be a noticeable difference as individual churches could reorganize as purpose-based 501©(3)s. The purposes would be along the lines of “providing shelter for the homeless” or “providing food to the hungry” and it would not change the status if they did so and preached at the same time. Therefore, to the extent to which any church property or revenue was used for such a purpose, it would not be taxed.

However, to the extent it was used solely for the purposes of religion, it would be taxed. Although this wouldn’t eliminate any number fudging, what it would do is eliminate filings from “the catholic church” and break it down into myriad individual purpose organizations. This would require that the church more carefully and clearly account for it’s money, and make it more clear whether they were being more political than not.

It’s less about whether in effect it would eliminate a benefit, but rather (1) increasing clarity to people and (2) making manipulation less convenient.

@CaptainHarley – We agree on the concept of rights at least. Our government is set up on a theory of non-intervention in terms of civil rights. However, the comparison to press is apt. A media corporation is based on an exercise of first amendment rights, but it is also a profit-making venture. The fact that it is taxed is not an interference with the first amendment rights. And if the corporation fails, that is not an interference with any of the individual employees ability to still express themselves, it’s simply that they no longer have the backing of an organization that itself has no rights.

The church is analogous to the corporation. If, for some reason, taxation caused a church to fail…it fails. The church has no rights. The individual members can still meet, worship, and practice as they see fit – but they will not do so in a big, pretty building with “corporate” sponsorship. What you seem to be glossing over is the fact that we’re talking about the application of a policy in a more even-handed manner that will not interfere with the rights of any individuals, but may have an impact on the profitability of an institution.

The power to tax may be the power to destroy. Fine. The church has to sell its land, and fire its people. Does that destroy Christianity? Does it also mean the people have to stop publicly worshiping or being Christians? Not at all.

jaytkay's avatar

And, as I have been at pains to explain, the power to tax is the power to destroy. To be allowed to tax religious activity would to be allowed to destroy it.

That makes no sense. By that logic, there is not taxed activity on Earth, they’ve all been destroyed.

You have obviously never worked with smaller churches or volunteers working with the poor,

I volunteer one night every week at a small church. We feed hundreds of poor people.

CaptainHarley's avatar


You are making a differentiation between belief and behavior, a differentiation which does not apply to religion. Most “religious people” behave as they do because they believe as they do. If you tax a religion to poverty, you have effectively eliminated some or all of the behaviors of the religion, although the belief may still be there.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – There is a difference between belief and behavior. But you’re not making a distinction that is important: only individuals have rights. There is no way to tax a religion into poverty – a religion is not a tangible thing. It’s like saying it’s possible to tax atheism into poverty.

What behaviors would be eliminated through taxation? I can think of none.

poisonedantidote's avatar

In continuation to my previous point, I would just like to say that in my scenario, while religious organizations would be taxed, they would not be destroyed. If governments took up my proposal to tax religions, and then proceeded to tax them 90% of all profits, I would say “what are you doing you greedy bastards, how are they supposed to pay that” and I would protest over it.

What I’m talking about is, you get to build a church, you get to fit it will a big bell, you get to put chairs and statues inside and buy some stained glass, and after you have purchased all the things you need, whatever is left over is taxed on a 18% to 24% kind of ratio, with the much larger organizations having to pay around 40%. Keep in mind that 20% of nothing is nothing, and that 20% of something still leaves you 80%.

What you don’t get to do, is have big piles of money laying around in reserve, or at least, not such large piles as they have now.

Tax religious organizations, but don’t exterminate them.

Aditionally, I’m well aware that my argument has a massive hole in it, If religion and government are trying to control the masses, then taxing religion just shifts more control to the government, but, I am also in favor of smaller governments too.

bkcunningham's avatar

@iamthemob “Considering the high political involvement of church generally, and the influence such organizations have over memberships, what is the benefit of allowing a general exemption for religions? How do people understand the exemptions to work?”

Reading your questions and really thinking about the subject, the only thing I keep coming back to in my mind is the question, why would you want to tax churches or religious organizations? Is it just a scheme to get more tax dollars from people?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@bkcunningham I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of wanting to tax churches so much as not wanting them to have exemptions that they don’t deserve. In my case, for instance, I am quite happy to let the exemptions for charitable and not-for-profit organizations to continue, and I’m happy to allow churches to continue applying for tax-exempt status under that statute for as long as they comply with the terms thereof. When they cease doing so, however, I see no reason for the tax exemptions to continue.

iamthemob's avatar

@bkcunningham – What @SavoirFaire said, essentially. The question is not why or for what reason they should be taxed. The question is why they should be exempt. Religion, in and of itself, doesn’t provide a benefit. The charity work a religion does provides a benefit – but that’s how the tax-exemption should be awarded.

Interesting use of the word “scheme” though…

LuckyGuy's avatar

I’d like to see them pay property taxes.
They use all the services everyone else in town pays for – police services, snowplowing, road construction and repair, sewers, etc. They should pay for their share of the infrastructure.

By avoiding property taxes they are effectively pushing their burden onto everyone else in the community – believers and non-believers alike.

bkcunningham's avatar

If a church isn’t exempt; it is taxed. Why tax it? That is a simple question. Of course a church, which is people, provides a benefit. I don’t like taxes and I certainly don’t understand taxing just for the sake of taxing. Wouldn’t it be nice if we knew the purpose of the money that is being taken from us? It just seems odd to advocate taking money from someone just for the sake of taking money. And who is this “they” that is avoiding property taxes? A church’s member is made up of people who pay taxes in their community if there are taxes imposed.

iamthemob's avatar

@bkcunningham – You seem to be missing the point here, though. Institutions or people who own property or earn revenue are taxed on that. Therefore, there should be a reason why something is exempt from paying taxes. The vast property holdings alone merit the question of whether the exemption is deserved – particularly when the average citizen can’t afford property tax increases when land value increases.

Saying that a church is people is not quite true. People are people, and could do most of the work without the “church” being there. And again, as mentioned, removing the exemption is not advocating taxing anyone, as the church can set up purpose-driven 501©(3)s, but this would increase transparency.

This isn’t a question about whether to tax or not. That’s another issue. However, if we are to tax some and not others, we should have a good reason why one group isn’t being taxed, and determine whether a better method is available.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I have explained the reason why it is unconstitutional to tax religious organizations in the same manner that organizations for profit are taxed. I suggest that the desire to do so even in light of this explanation reveals religious animus more than anything else.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – It’s not unconstitutional as religions have no rights. You certainly do. I certainly do. Not religions. You’ve explained nothing. Further, accusing me of religious animus is ridiculously inappropriate…or do I need to point you AGAIN to the various times I have attempted to defend people with Christian beliefs against what I thought were unnecessary attacks on them for beliefs that I think are profound and important in many ways.

I will point to this for now, but you know there are more because you have done this before, and I’ve pointed this out to you before. Suggesting religions not get tax exempt status shows no animus towards religion. The fact that you haven’t explained your position and attempt to deflect in this manner demonstrates, however, that you need to turn this criticism on yourself – because accusing me of having such an animus again shows that the prejudice is all your own.

No one is advocating taxing religious organizations because they are religious. The proposition is providing tax exemption solely for the charity work done by them based on individual filings. If you’d realize that mosques would be potentially taxed as well as churches, you might actually support the idea.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@bkcunningham The question comes up regarding exemption because everyone else is taxed. People get treated the same unless there is a reason not to do so. If you are against all taxes, that is a separate issue. The question is why churches should not pay taxes when other organizations that hold property do so (organizations that are also made up of people who pay taxes as individuals).

CaptainHarley's avatar

My apologies. The “religious animus” comment was not directed at you specifically.

The First Amendment to the US Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

I leave it to those of you who believe churches should be taxed, to give adequate rationale as to why taxation would not be a law “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – Regardless of whether it was directed at me specifically, I was included in the accusation. Broad accusations against a group tend to include those you claim you don’t intend to include. Because this has happened before, I will accept your apology as genuine not on the face as I did before, but rather wait until it is proven through considered action.

As a lawyer, I will tell you that a full understanding of the Constitution requires that you go beyond the actual words of the individual amendments. I took a full course on constitutional interpretation, as well as a full course on the interpretation of the first amendment specifically. That’s the beginning of an understanding of it.

(1) taxation of real property and earnings of a religion do not prevent the individual establishment of any religion in any way. One does not need either to start one.

(2) more importantly, the establishment clause is regarding the establishment of an official state religion really. Therefore, any policy which acts to favor one religion over another acts to establish a religion. Tax laws provide exemptions to currently established religions, but require that others prove themselves to qualify. And many are denied. This action specifically favors certain religions over others. Therefore, it is more appropriate to view the exemption as, in fact, a violation of the first amendment.

(3) taxation of real property or earnings of a religion to not stop any individual from practicing it freely. It takes no money for one to worship freely anywhere.

Further, laws may abridge the actual practice of individuals if they run contrary to generally accepted criminal legislation – Mormon polygamy is an example. But most importantly, again, Constitutional rights are held by individual citizens and not by institutions, organizations, etc. as a matter of law, so any law affecting a religious organization has nothing to do with an individual citizens right to practice a religion, except that they might not be able to do so in a stunning building with vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows on prime real estate in NYC.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@CaptainHarley Again, I’m not for taxing all the churches. Still, taxation does not, in itself, prohibit the free exercise of religion any more than the sales tax prohibits the free exercise of spending. To prohibit the free exercise of religion is to pass a law saying that you can’t worship in some particular way or that you can only worship in one particular way. You’d have more luck using the first clause, except that the tax codes don’t have to specifically mention taxing the churches, so it could just be a general law that affected everyone.

You seem to be taking “prohibit” as a synonym for “inhibit,” but the two are most certainly not the same. Moreover, taxation would not necessarily inhibit the free exercise of religion. If a religious organization couldn’t afford separate premises for a church, its members could meet up at each other’s houses. Small denominations sometimes have to do this under the current tax codes, so surely this isn’t a violation of the First Amendment. It’s not like the government should go around buying churches, mosques, and synagogues for everyone who can’t afford one.

YARNLADY's avatar

@CaptainHarley What I am for is the equal taxation of churches. They should not be exempt from the taxes all the rest of us pay. Why is it not unconstitutional for a church with six acres next door to me to pay zero property tax, while I have to pay 1% of the assessed value of my land + improvements? How is that not giving special recognition to religion?

iamthemob's avatar

I’m going to oversimplify because of the confusion.

The elimination of tax exemption for religious organizations does not mean we look at the religious organization and say “Give me your money,” it means we look at the religious organizations and ask them “Hey, why do I have to pay all these taxes and you don’t – and you ask me for my leftover money on top of it?”

mammal's avatar

No, but their financial dealings should be audited and totally open.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I suppose we shall have to add this to the list of things upon which we agree to disagree.

My general approach to government is that it should be as small as possilbe, cost as little as possible, and stay the hell out of the affairs of its people as much as is possible. I strongly disagree with those who say that basic human rights are not inherent. If they are not inherent, then they can be taken away with the greatest of ease by the government, something I see happening under BOTH major parties. In a Nation where true liberty abounds, the government fears the people, not the other way around.

I see any attempt by government to regulate, control or TAX religious organizations as merely another attempt to erode basic liberties, and will fight it to my dying breath, just as I will fight any other attempt to limit human rights and liberties.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@CaptainHarley Look at the Bentham quote again. The fact that you see people’s rights being taken away by both major parties with ease is the proof that they are not inherent. Otherwise, they could not be taken away. What it sounds like you believe there is a set of natural rights that are separate from our artificial, political rights and that the government is morally required to respect those rights. Again, I disagree. The metaphysics for that kind of thing is ridiculous. I also find it paranoid to think that any attempt to regulate, control, or tax religious organization is an attack on basic liberties. If a religious group started ritualistically sacrificing non-members as part of its practice, I bet you’d be for regulating and controlling them straightaway.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley -

I will point you to this thread. You argued vehemently in favor of a state amending its Constitution to prevent consideration of Sharia law in courts. Sharia law was defined as Islamic law based on the Quran and the teaching of Mohammed. I urge you to consider your uneven application of your constant assertion that you’ll fight to your dying breath against “any other” attempt to limit human rights and liberties. Your own arguments disprove your assertion.

The fact is that you haven’t been able to show how a single aspect of one’s right to worship as they choose would be affected by the taxation. I’ve asked you directly. You’ve responded with the same vague assertions about how you feel or that you see “any attempt” to tax religious organizations as an erosion of basic liberties. It seems you missed the bold and italicized statement about – religions and religious organizations have no Constitutional rights – only you do. If you understand that, you will recognize that there is no constitutionally based argument against the removal of tax exemptions – which AGAIN is not necessarily as an increase in taxing them. They will reorg as individual 501©(3)s. The impact may very well be minimal. But if I have to pay tax to the government, why should they get a free ride?

This is especially true in cases where churches can hide political agenda funding because of their size. The Mormon funding and organization with Catholic leaders to put Prop 8 on the California ballot, which for the first time in U.S. history removed legal rights from a group of individuals simply because of who they were, is a clear example. The Mormon church claimed around $5,000 in funds to the Prop 8 campaign when it really spent almost $200,000. Inherent rights are inherent only in theory – your fears indicate that you actually agree that there is no such thing as an inherent basic human right as anyone with sufficient power can take whatever they want from those it has power over – e.g., the power to tax is the power to destroy, as you argue. The example of the Christian coalition funding Prop 8 is an actual real life example. And it wasn’t the government taking away the rights. It was a Christian backed coalition.

And yet, they should remain tax-exempt because you see any attempt to hold them responsible for doing what most other people and entities in the U.S. do – namely, paying taxes – as an assault on religious freedom.

This isn’t a question of agreeing to disagree anymore. If you can’t provide concrete arguments, evidence, or anything to establish your position, and further counter the above, you have to revise your argument.

Seelix's avatar

I haven’t read all of the answers. But I’ll say this: churches and religious organizations are businesses just like any other. They’re selling a different product or providing a different service, but they’re businesses, and should have to pay taxes like other businesses.

I don’t think it has anything at all to do with freedom of religion – taxing churches and the like doesn’t restrict one’s freedom to practice whatever religion they like.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Sorry, but I don’t agree. I apologize for the behavior of some of those who use this freedom from taxation as a stealth means to further what others see as a political agenda. That is unacceptable. But the means to change such behavior already exist. Taxation of religious organizations is not the answer. I will not alter my contention that such action is unconstitutional. Is it necessary for the survival of the Church? No. The Church will survive regardless, but America is still a democracy ( read “republic” ), for now, and christians are still allowed to vote… for now.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – You have no constitutional argument against the taxation of religion. You are simply asserting that taxation is unconstitutional. That is, in fact, 100% untrue both in policy and practice right now, today. I have asked you how it is unconstitutional. You say that you will not alter your contention that it’s unconstitutional. That’s not a response.

America being a democracy has nothing to do with whether taxing a religious organization (which is already policy if it cannot meet standards) is constitutional or not. AND I REPEAT – THIS WOULD NOT MEAN THAT RELIGIONS WOULD PAY TAXES BECAUSE THEY COULD REORG AS MORE TRANSPARENT PURPOSE-DRIVEN 501©(3) EXEMPT ORGANIZATIONS – I CAN’T BELIEVE I HAVE TO SAY THIS AGAIN. But even if it did – this is about simplifying oversight for the people.

When you say the means to change such behavior already exist…what is it? Why hasn’t it been done? Why are the Mormon and Catholic churches still receiving a tax exempt status if they cheated?

You can’t say it’s unconstitutional because you say so. That’s irrational. You’re stonewalling my arguments instead of responding to them. That’s irrational. You’re making me defend a stance and provide you with reasons why what I say is reasonable when it is Christian religious organizations that actively have funded the push of legislation that has amended a Constitution that stripped my friends of their rights…because you think it’s possible that taxing churches may somehow possibly affect the way you worship? That’s offensive.

I believe that I’ve tried enough. If you don’t want to agree with the objective truth about constitutional law, that’s your perogative. I’ve learned that, apparently, it’s a very Christian thing to do.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Ouch! LOL! Touche!

Look… although I almost became one myself ( U. Of Illinois Law School, 1965 ), I have very little patience with lawyers. I don’t care much about what the legal profession terms “constitutional law.” From what I have seen, it actually has very little to do with the Constiution. In my world, there is truth, and then there is Truth, and they are sometimes at odds. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, in my humble opinion, qualify as Truth. Call me a dinosaur or a fossil, but that is what I believe. I believe that the framers meant exactly what they said when they penned, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”

As I said above, the Church will survive regardless, but the last I checked this was still a democracy.

Math321's avatar

I personally think churches should be tax free IF AND ONLY IF they register for non-profit status.

Also, you guys think of churches as big buildings with the sole purpose of manipulating people. The only churches that do that, most of the time, are the ones that televanglize. The smaller ones, most of the time, just take in money, and do something productive with it, such as help people in third world countries. There ARE exceptions in both cases, but on the whole, that’s what they’re like.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – Such a literal belief requires the following:

(1) You believe that courts should consider Sharia law when dealing with court cases where Muslims assert it.

(2) That any entity that espouses a religious belief be allowed tax exempt status.

(3) That polygamy should be allowed as followed in the Mormon tradition.

(4) Parents cannot be punished for refusing life-saving medical aid for their children due to religious beliefs.

(5) Female Genital Mutilation cannot be banned, as it is connected with many people’s spiritual beliefs.

(6) Various forms of ritual sacrifice must be supported – even human.

That’s what no law means. It means religion trumps law. Is that really what you mean to argue?

CaptainHarley's avatar

Don’t be ridiculous.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – Nope. If Congress is Constitutionally limited so that it is prevented from making any law prohibiting the free expression of religion, and the founders mean exactly what they say, we need not go to any source document outside the Constitution itself for meaning, and the above is what the amendment is stating.

If not, why not? Of course, the fact that the judiciary was tasked with interpreting the Constitution because the founders in fact knew that they couldn’t express such profound principles in a manner that would predict all potential issues arising under it over time, and that we inherited a common law system which depends on the law developing on a case-by-case basis, then we might actually be talking about how the Constitution really works.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@CaptainHarley You still haven’t addressed the issue I raised earlier.

If a religious group started ritualistically sacrificing non-members as part of its practice, would you want the government to do anything about it? Assume that the members of this group are fairly stealthy and well-trained to avoid whatever means of self-defense you might have, but couldn’t stand up to a SWAT team. Would vigilante justice be the only reasonable course of action, in your opinion, since the government interfering would be a violation of religious freedom (on your interpretation thereof)?

bkcunningham's avatar

On the federal level, churches and religous organizations are exempt from federal income tax under IRC section 501©(3). Here is the IRS explanation for exempting churches and religious organizations who qualify under the 501©(3) status:

“Congress has enacted special tax laws applicable to
churches, religious organizations, and ministers in recognition
of their unique status in American society and
of their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment of
the Constitution of the United States. Churches and religious
organizations are generally exempt from income
tax and receive other favorable treatment under the tax
law; however, certain income of a church or
religious organization may be subject to tax, such as
income from an unrelated business.”

The 501©(3) status is already the requirement in the US for churches and religious organizations applying for exemption of federal income taxes.

According to the IRS: “Excess benefit transactions. In cases where an IRC
section 501©(3) organization provides an excess economic
benefit to an insider, both the organization and
the insider have engaged in an excess benefit transaction.
The IRS may impose an excise tax on any insider who
improperly benefits from an excess benefit transaction,
as well as on organization managers who participate in
such a transaction knowing that it is improper. An insider
who benefits from an excess benefit transaction is also
required to return the excess benefits to the organization.
Detailed rules on excess benefit transactions are
contained in the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 26,
sections 53.4958–0 through 53.4958–8.
Private Benefit
An IRC section 501©(3) organization’s activities must
be directed exclusively toward charitable, educational,
religious, or other exempt purposes. Such an organization’s
activities may not serve the private interests of any
individual or organization. Rather, beneficiaries of an
organization’s activities must be recognized objects of
charity (such as the poor or the distressed) or the community
at large (for example, through the conduct of
religious services or the promotion of religion). Private
benefit is different from inurement to insiders. Private
benefit may occur even if the persons benefited are not
insiders. Also, private benefit must be substantial in
order to jeopardize tax-exempt status.
Substantial Lobbying Activity
In general, no organization, including a church, may
qualify for IRC section 501©(3) status if a substantial
part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation
(commonly known as lobbying). An IRC section 501©
(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too
much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.”

iamthemob's avatar

Considering we’ve discussed the basic concepts of the Constitution from the founding perspective, I think it’s best to end that part of the conversation for me on this:

“No man has a natural right to commit aggression on the equal rights of another, and this is all from which the laws ought to restrain him.” – Thomas Jefferson.

When we provide better legal rights to one group that are literally unavailable to others, and privilege the groups of some without objective reason, that is much committing aggression on the equal rights of another as taking rights away in a discriminatory fashion. In fact, that has been the vastly more popular way of committing such an aggression.

cockswain's avatar

I’m going either slightly off-topic or going back on topic, I’m not sure.

I just watched a documentary,8: The Mormon Proposition. It details how the Mormon Church very carefully (and IMO, very unethically) influenced the gay marriage propositions in Hawaii in the 90s, and the more recent one in California in 2008. Loosely, they realized they shouldn’t be directly associated with the anti-gay right movement since their negative association would harm their cause. So they allied with other groups and remained unnoticed in the Hawaii election.

In the 2008 election, they pretty much extorted money from their followers by having their “prophet” (who Mormons believe actually is in direct communication with Jesus) tell them that God wants this proposition to fail, and it is crucial for them to donate to support the campaign. They went as far as to visit homes of the followers and say, “we’ve seen your tithing, and know how much you earn. We believe you can pay this much more for this cause.” Then they would wait for them to write a check. If they didn’t, they were threatened with losing their membership to the Church.

The end result is they generated huge sums of cash, successfully asserted their agenda in influencing the outcome of an election, and by no means should this organization be considered to qualify for tax-exempt status.

CaptainHarley's avatar


Reductio ad absurdum is not a valid tactic in argumentation, however, to respond in brief… it is well-established that a “right” does not give permission to violate other laws just to exercise it.

bkcunningham's avatar

@cockswain if everything alleged in the documentary is true, I’m sure the illegal activities by this organization claiming 501©(3) status and the allegations of failing to report all of its late non-monetary contributions in its efforts to pass Proposition 8 in California in 2008 have been taken up with the IRS and the judicial branch of our government. Do you know the standing of the case? The only legal findings that I know of was a $5,539 fine the Church paid on behalf of a complaint filed by California’s Fair Political Practices Commissionon behalf of gay-rights activist Fed Karger for late reporting of contributions to help the Yes on 8 committee.

iamthemob's avatar

@CaptainHarley – Reductio ad absurdum is appropriate when it is to demonstrate that it is inappropriate to take a legal premise to it’s fullest extent – which is precisely what you argue. To say that the founding fathers mean exactly what they say in the statement “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion,” we are required to take the statement literally. Therefore, any law that would limit the exercise of a religion is invalid ab initio in relation to the exercise of the religion…or on the flip side, the state can make any law it wants to limit the free exercise of religion. It is inappropriate, however, if it is applied to claim in a straw man fashion that the premise is stating something that it does not state. This requires, of course, that we consider the application of religious liberty in context. This means that we must consider how it plays out in a case-by-case basis – e.g., what other liberties or rights are equally sacred to us as people such that if the practice of a religion interferes with those rights, the practice is illegal.

This is of course what you are arguing, I believe. But it’s not what you’re saying. The complexity of an idea of religious freedom in a religiously diverse context seems to be something you understand, but don’t seem to admit. If it is legal to limit religious freedom, the first amendment means not what it says, but what it means. Unfortunately, that requires a legal interpretation you seem to be adverse to, because it must be done by those of us terrible people in the legal community.

@bkcunningham – that is it, so far. There is a second claim, currently in courts. $5,539 for what they did.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@CaptainHarley As a professional philosopher and teacher of philosophy, I am here to tell you that reductio ad absurdum is a perfectly valid tactic in argumentation. The most common form, proof by contradiction, shows that a premise entails a contradiction. How would it be inappropriate to show that a belief entails a contradiction (and thus could not possibly be true)?

Regardless, what I am doing is not reductio ad absurdum, but rather something related called “internal criticism.” This is an argumentative strategy in which it is shown that there is an inconsistency within a person’s belief, thereby showing that said person’s beliefs cannot all be true (which in turn requires a revision of the belief set). The most common version of this strategy is to show that a person’s stated beliefs entail something that he could not—or would not want to—endorse.

You’re free to bite the bullet and say that the government shouldn’t do anything in the scenario I presented, but the problem is you do not want to. Thus you must revise your original belief set on pain of contradiction. Moreover, were you not to revise your position, it would lose a great deal of its argumentative force (since virtually no one would go along with you on it once the consequences were revealed). This in itself might not bother you, but it would make your position much less relevant for all practical purposes.

bkcunningham's avatar

@iamthemob where did you get the phrase: “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion”? The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This clause is absolute in that it allows no law – and it forbids more than the establishment of religion by the government by forbiding even laws respecting an establishmen of religion. The First Amendment applied to the Congress and federal government and hadn’t been applied to the states until 1947 in the Supreme Court ruling of Everson v. Board of Education. After that ruling, all government action on the federal, state or local level has to abide by the establishment clause.

iamthemob's avatar


Wow – really?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Congress shall make no law” applies to each phrase. So “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Of what? Religion. Therefore “Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion” is a first amendment principle.

The post you drew that from was in response to the claim one could draw clearly from the amendment it’s full meaning. Therefore, discussing the interpretation of it in the courts isn’t relevant – relevant to the post, that is.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)

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