Tax the Churches

A recent discussion on Blogcritics along with this New York Times article about the separation of church and state in Italy have prompted the following thoughts.

I live in Brooklyn, the Borough of Churches. There’s practically a church on every block, and where there isn’t a church, there’s a synagogue or temple. There are also mosques in the neighborhood.

My block has a Seventh Day Adventist church. Its busiest day is Saturday, not Sunday. Crowds of kids play on the sidewalk out front. I don’t know too much about what goes on there, since it’s a Spanish-speaking church. I do know they sponsor food drives and clothing drives, and generally have decent relations with their residential neighbors.

Like all the churches, they don’t pay taxes. Why? Is it because they’re a non-profit organization? I wouldn’t know anything about their finances, but I do know how rich some churches are. The Catholic church, for example, and some of the evangelical churches. It’s a stretch to think of these churches as not-for-profit.

I believe that the tax-exempt status of a religious institution should be proportional to its nondenominational charitable activities.

For example, a church that spends money on fancy cars for its preacher should be taxed on those expenses. A church that runs a soup kitchen but requires its beneficiaries to pray for their supper should have to pay tax on the portion of its income used to run that soup kitchen. A church that owns its building and uses the facility for both worship services and charitable deeds should be taxed according to a formula, the same way a person can deduct home office expenses from his income taxes. Better financial minds than mine could come up with the formula.

If you agree with me that such a proposal is unlikely to be taken seriously in America, you will also probably recognize that we are a religious country, in the sense that religious institutions are given special privileges withheld from individuals, private landowners, and businesses. I don’t agree with these special privileges. But my view is in the minority. It would probably even be fair to describe it as marginal.

Still, think about it next time you walk (or drive) by the churches in your area. What if they all had to pay property taxes the same way you or your landlord does, the same way the commercial building owners on Main St. do? Then your municipality would have more income and could lower property taxes. Your tax burden (or rent) could be less. Meanwhile the churches, if they had to account for every untaxed dollar they spent, would be better practicioners of what they preach.

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