General Question

Ron_C's avatar

Why should, in the U.S., churches be exempt from taxes?

Asked by Ron_C (14438points) April 17th, 2010

I can understand tax deductions for churches that run food banks, Salvation Army shelters and things like that but why should church property be exempt from real estate taxes? Why should the clergy be exempt from social security taxes? Why should donations to church building funds and missionary work be tax exempt? Just because the exemptions span religions (even Scientology) it still seems like taxing non-members and government support of religion.

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39 Answers

marinelife's avatar

It is separation of church and state.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Since the power to tax is the power to destroy, taxing religion gives government the power to destroy religion. This is a clear violation of the church/state separation implied by the Constitution.

DarkScribe's avatar

What? You expect Benny Hinn to pay taxes?

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

In all fairness, the tax-exempt status should depend on the churches staying out of politics. The separation must work both ways. Endorsing parties, candidates or legislation should void a churchs tax-exempt status..

laureth's avatar

Supposedly, they’re like charities, in that they work for the public good.

Ron_C's avatar

I am not seeing this. I don’t see how paying real estate tax for schools, police, fire and other city services gives the government power to destroy a religion. I am not saying that they should be taxed at a different rate than other businesses or residents, I just believe that they should pull their own weight and not become a burden on the rest of us.

My wife used to work in Portsmouth Virginia. The downtown area was becoming a drain on its citizens because small stores and cafes closed up because of high taxes. All that was left were a government building or two, a couple banks and many many churches. The churches payed not taxes so the existing businesses had to take up the slack. Thing didn’t start turning around until a couple of the churches closed. I am not sure if the town ever really recovered from it’s burden of religion.

Ron_C's avatar

@laureth a church’s primary responsibility, like any corporation, is to expand the business. All or any services are secondary to the churches existance. The Salvation Army as a possible exception.

Ron_C's avatar

@DarkScribe actually, yes I do. He, along with people like Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham benefit greatly because of government largess.

DarkScribe's avatar

@Ron_C actually, yes I do. He, along with people like Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham

Aw c’mon. Benny Hinn is God’s best buddy – you just ask him, he’ll tell. He and God have long chats all the time. God wouldn’t know what to do without him. A guy like that surely deserves a tax break. Or was that a leg break? I know that he serves something broken.

Ron_C's avatar

@DarkScribe “I know that he serves something broken.” I certainly agree with you there.

dpworkin's avatar

They seem also to be exempt from RICO laws, oddly. Has not the Catholic Church been involved for years in covering up felonies, and shifting felonious people around from job to job to protect them?

Ron_C's avatar

@dpworkin as a former Catholic, I regret that you are correct. Unfortunately, people that attempt to depose the Pope are traditionally burned at the stake.

Pandora's avatar

Most clergy don’t make a straight salary. Unless your talking about Billy Graham or someone like himself. Most get free lodging, utilities and a lot of other things are paid in benefits but not necessarily straight cash.
I know they have to provide some proof of all the income that is provided to them in charities and I’m sure that along with that, they have to show what were there expenses and how much they spend in charities offered.

laureth's avatar

@Ron_C – I agree with you. I’m just trying to explain the reasoning. Theoretically, they’re a nonprofit, just like Boy Scouts or NPR. Those groups, while they’re not charities in the “feeding the poor” sense, all perform some useful function in the world, whether it’s to do investigative reporting, or get teenage boys out into nature, or serve a community’s spiritual needs.

(You say that the Salvation Army is a possible exception. I disagree – SA’s mission is to expand Christianity, and they do it by paying the needy to sit through their sermons, with food. The food is secondary to the sermon/mission.)

And just like Boy Scouts and NPR (and businesses), they want to expand to get the word out and help more people. (Whether or not the people need that kind of help, let’s just leave alone for a while.) The difference between these nonprofits, and actual bona fide businesses, is the profit motive. Supposedly, churches don’t have a profit motive, no matter how bad they want to expand.

When a church moves its priorities from non-profit community service to for-profit business, they ought to tax ‘em like any other business. How do you tell, though?

janbb's avatar

Good question; now that I think of it, why should they? Unless they are considered totally non-profit charitable organizationas as @laureth suggests.

Ron_C's avatar

@Pandora I know that I have to claim gifts, goods, gambling winnings, and lottery winnings on my income tax. I would think that an honest preacher would do the same. Since even a McDonald’s worker, military, or Peace Corps member has to pay income tax, I don’t see the reason for preachers to be exempt.

I would argue that the above provide at least a significant contribution to society as a preacher.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Preachers aren’t exempt, just “religious organizations.”

lilikoi's avatar

@stranger_in_a_strange_land If you lobby, you cannot file 501 c 3 exemption, but are required to use 501c4 which is not tax exempt.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

@lilikoi Formal lobbying, yes. But a great many churches are highly politicized and hide behind tax-exempt status while engaged in political activities.

jaytkay's avatar

To exempt churches, the government has to decide what is and what is not “religion”. Which is unconstitutional.

Though, as Laureth writes, they could just register as non-profits, to the same effect.

jerv's avatar

@CaptainHarley The power to vote and to lobby is the power to destroy. It gives the Church the ability to destroy the government. The separation should be bilateral/reciprocal. And imposing Christian morality on us all is a tyranny; while many Americans claim to be Christian, the truth is that there are more Agnostics, lapsed Christians, and other people that really don’t qualify, especially since they are not as hardcore as people like Sarah Palin.

Either pay your taxes or stay out of politics.

stranger_in_a_strange_land's avatar

@Jerv Again, well said and gets to the heart of my circuituos logic. Again +GA If these religious groups have a political agenda, they do not deserve tax-exempt status. Sepration must cut both ways. The state must also back off on the native Americans use of peyote and the Rastafarians use of canibis, as the state has no right to interferene with their sacred cerimonials.

Corey_D's avatar

I disagree with giving churches tax exemptions. I have no problem for them applying as non-profit organizations and getting tax breaks that way but then they should have to follow all the same rules as other non-profits. The tax rules as they are now puts the government in the position of officially sanctioning religions and decided what does and doesn’t qualify as a “true” tax-exempt religion. This violates the spirit of the first amendment.

laureth's avatar

@Corey_D – if it makes you feel any better, the government can’t finally decide what’s a religion and what’s not. It can only decide what religions get tax exempt status.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

The underlying reason is because people do not want their tithes being taxed. It would be like paying the government a fee in order to worship their God.

This arrangement is likewise for all “so called” non-profit organizations. No one wants to pay the government in order to help stray animals. No one wants to pay the government to help the homeless. No one wants to pay the government to worship their God.

It leaves open the possibility that the government could tax so high that one could not afford to abide by the foundational principles of their religion. It could become too expensive to worship God.

The problem does not lie with non-taxation of non-profits. The problem lies with unscrupulous non-profits bending the rules so that major profits look unprofitable.

jerv's avatar

@laureth Actually, they do decide .

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Does child molestation count as “unscrupulous”?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

Yes, I should hope so. But child molestation is a completely different subject, not part of any official church doctrine or government taxation policy that I know of.

Ron_C's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies “The underlying reason is because people do not want their tithes being taxed.” The government isn’t compelling you to tithe, the church is in effect charging a membership fee. There is no difference between that and a gym membership.
Many other people, and I agree, that churches that want exemptions should register as non-profit organizations. That way, the government doesn’t have to judge the validity of the religion and justified charity claims can be documented.

When I donate to a charity, I make sure that their “administrative costs” are a very low percentage of their income. I believe that the religious should have the same choice.

I suspect that this is the main reason that religious organizations fight so strongly against taxation. They don’t want their members realizing that “administrative costs” are the majority of church expenses.

By the way, I never donate to religion. I have, however donated to the Salvation Army.

laureth's avatar

@jerv – Bush is entitled to his opinion, and so is Barr, as distasteful as those opinions are. And they can even fight to un-fund certain religions if that’s what they’re moved to do, although that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. But they can’t un-make Wicca a religion. It is a religion, whether or not Bush and Barr or the Government think it’s a legal religion.

jerv's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Not officially, at least as far as we know. However, I don’t know all of the religions that are out there (I only know the major ones) so it’s hard for me to make a blanket statement. It doesn’t help matters that, despite the actions of certain priests and all of the fatwas issued by extremist Imams and similar unscrupulous acts, I think it safe to say that the majority of Catholics and Muslims are decent people that just happen to have a few highly publicized fuckwads amongst them.

@laureth Being wrong has never stopped humanity before. As for whether Wicca or any other religion is a legal religion (and thus eligible for tax exemption) is decided by people like Bush and Barr. Good thing that their views are a minority amongst policy makers, though if martial law is ever declared or we get enough wingnuts or charismatic lobbyists then all bets are off.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

@Ron_C “the church is in effect charging a membership fee. There is no difference between that and a gym membership.”

Tithing is suggested, encouraged, but completely optional. Gym membership payments are required.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar


The only organization that I know of that publicly encourages sex with minors is NAMBLA.

jerv's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies Three things.
First off, that may be true in the Western world, but the way I see it, the world is full of so many fucked up things that I still remain hesitant to cast my net too wide here.
Second, there are always some people within any group that don’t exactly live up to official policy.
Third, I think that massive cover-ups imply at least a level of tolerance that goes beyond merely turning a blind eye. While it may not be encouraged, it doesn’t seem to be discouraged either unless you count some lip service.

Ron_C's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies I realize that this response is greatly overdue. I was just reviewing my old questions and re-read your answer. Since you suggest that tithes are not “required” you must never have considered joining a small rural Christian church. If you refuse to tithe, you are unlikely to be accepted as a real part of the church. You may be allowed to go to service but you will be made to feel very unwelcome and I expect that the church’s potluck dinners would be very uncomfortable for the non-tithing non-members.

It would be like going to your example gym and using the equipment but not paying for membership. You might get away with it for awhile but soon you would be denied entry. Not very christian but they have to pay the bills.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

If it’s a church that follows the teachings of Christ, then none of what you claim about it could possibly be true. If the church doesn’t follow the teachings of Christ, then what you say could be true. However, I’m unfamiliar with any church sharing tithing records with its members, making it difficult for anyone to be scorned at the pot luck dinner on the basis of not tithing.

Ron_C's avatar

@RealEyesRealizeRealLies when we were younger and had young children we shopped around for a church we could accept. My wife and I were raised Catholic and came to realize that the church and pope were feeding us a line whose only purpose was to maintain the power and wealth of that church.

Since we lived in the south (southern Va, almost North Carolina) we looked at the unaffiliated “full gospel” type churches. They welcomed strangers but soon insisted that they conform to their standard beliefs as soon as possible.

They universally “suggested” tithing and altar calls where public confessions were encourage. Frankly we enjoyed the black churches over the white one but uncomfortable in both, one because of our color, the other because of their strict interpretations and insistence that the bible was 100% accurate.

I think it would have been fun to be a member of a black church but Sunday morning is still the most segregated time in this country.

Eventually we decided that Christianity offered us nothing and that religious decisions should not be imposed on children. As a result, our children grew up totally devoid of religious education except for our secular interpretations of bible stories and other myths. The grew to be healthy, well-educated adults with firm values and the understanding that right are wrong are ethical, not religious choices. The only thing they can’t understand is why groups of religious people justify torture, murder, and genocide. Frankly, neither can I.

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

”...Christianity offered us nothing and that religious decisions…”

I understand and tend to agree. But perhaps you’ve misunderstood me. I didn’t say anything about “decisions” from “religion” about Christ. I said ”...a church that follows… the teachings… of Christ…”… twice.

Christ wasn’t a Christian. He never promoted Christianity. Christ promoted The Way, and before religion got a hold of his message the movement was referred to as The Way multiple times in the bible.

The modern day Christian will miss the second coming of Christ every bit as much as they accuse the Jews of missing the first coming. They will not recognize him.

Ron_C's avatar

“The modern day Christian will miss the second coming of Christ every bit as much as they accuse the Jews of missing the first coming. They will not recognize him”

If that is true what is the point of either coming? After-all, he’s supposed to be god or a god so this should have been predicted. One definition of insanity is preforming an action repeatedly and expecting different results. Is Jesus just another crazy god?

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

that would require us to carefully define what a God and a JC is, which I don’t suppose resembles anything remotely similar to that which is described by pop culture religions of modernity.

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