If Churches paid taxes…

Found this on the interwebs…

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So, what are your thoughts?

Post By Joel Watts (10,115 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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22 thoughts on “If Churches paid taxes…

  1. The problem word here is “would,” right in the middle of the poster. “Could, hypothetically,” is more accurate. Would you trust that if Congress were handed 80 billion dollars, that they would fund food stamps rather than, say, pork barrel projects in their home districts?

    A further hallucination of the poster is that if churches were taxed, they would still be able to afford to provide social services at the current levels. It’s reasonable to expect (or rather, fear) that the amount of food that religious organization-based food banks would no longer afford to give out would be well into the billions.

  2. If this comes to pass, the churches will have no one to blame but themselves. The same historical Jesus that advised the rich young ruler to “[s]ell everything you have and give to the poor” would most likely be appalled by what has been accumulated in his name.
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    Thomas Aquinas probably had Jesus’ admonition in mind when, after Pope Innocent IV noted the Church could no longer say silver and gold did it lack, Aquinas observed that neither could Pope tell a lame man to arise and walk.
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    Somehow, I suspect Jesus would prefer churches heal rather than hoard. Then, rather obviously, opinions differ on this matter as much in early 21st century America as they did in 13th century Rome.

  3. I’m not sure how that “tax bill” is calculated. Sure, we can assume that, if we were to treat churches like businesses, they might have to pay that much in taxes. The problem is that, whatever you think about churches, they’re not businesses. And they don’t get special treatment relative to the class of organizations that it is relevant to compare them to, i.e. other non profits. So, you would have to tax not only churches but all organizations dealing with the following purposes: “charitable, religious, educational, scientific, literary, testing for public safety, fostering national or international amateur sports competition, and preventing cruelty to children or animals”.

    What would probably be a good idea is to apply the same rules to churches that are applied to other non-profits, e.g. requiring them to file 990s. And perhaps we should also make non-profits pay property tax.

    But across-the-board taxation of churches (and other non-profits) would be a major departure from well-accepted principles in taxation and probably rife with unintended consequences.

      • I’d say the same rules should apply to them as to other 501(c)(3) nonprofits. Issue advocacy only and no endorsement of specific candidates, as long as this is the rule that applies to other nonprofits. That’s really the gist of my comment: we can’t make special rules for churches because that would probably violate separation of church and state.

        As far as I know, churches are free to establish a 501(c)(4) affiliate that has no such restriction, as long as they clearly separate the accounts and show that no tax-deductible contributions were used to fund this 501(c)(4) organization. So you could have “Podunk First Baptist Church” (501(c)(3)) and “Podunk First Baptist Church Lobbying” (501(c)(4)). But you can’t use contributions made to the former to fund the latter.

  4. I do not think churches should pay taxes. But I think they should be required to fully disclose their financial records to the general public. Including all details of salaries and expenses.

  5. If churches pay taxes, they would also gain a lot of political power similar to what corporations currently have. Atheists who argue for taxing churches should be careful what they wish for.

    • Not necessarily. The Catholic Church has been a de facto corporation since before the 17th century Dutch invented the real thing. At times, its wielded unbelievable political power. Yet, despite all of that, today it is foundering. For example, a presumptuous and pretentious church spokesman was recently reminded by a lowly host in front of a national television audience that his church does not own marriage!
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      Moreover, corporations only have godlike power in the United States today because of a quirky interpretation of the 14th Amendment. Their exalted status is the result of little more than legal fiction perpetrated by a former Clerk of the Supreme Court. In time, as was the case with the presumed divine right of kings, this charade will collapse.

    • True. On the other hand, there just enough fat cat congregations with gaudy infrastructure to make churches an inviting target. Some of the more upscale churches even go so far as to bill members for their tithe!
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      The real headache for churches may not be so much the tax as having to open up their records for inspections and potentially dealing with periodic audits.

  6. I wonder how many churches would end up paying taxes anyway. If they were taxed like businesses, they could claim huge proportions of their income as necessary expenses, including salaries and building costs. They could also deduct gifts to undeniably charitable organizations. I guess a few megachurches would apparently make a profit, but they could probably write that off against the cost of building their new stadium size sanctuary – and of paying for the kinds of accountant who can make major corporations’ profits miraculously disappear. I don’t know where the $83.5 billion figure came from, but if it was from applying a percentage to the total income of all churches, it is hopelessly unrealistic.

  7. At the risk of changing the subject in midstream: What if churches got out of the business of marrying people? For more on this idea, follow the link below:
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    https://twitter.com/fatherjonathan/statuses/438847739724845056
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    Frankly, I don’t think it will happen – or, at least it won’t happen on a large scale. The primary reason being that it would too closely resemble throwing the baby out with the baptismal water. Yet, the mere possibility raises some intriguing shooting one’s self in the foot-like scenarios should Christianity decide to distance itself from the institution of marriage.

    • I don’t think he means the Church should get out of the marriage business, only that it should not do state weddings. Personally, I believe in Luther’s Two Kingdoms. Let the Church do the church stuff and the state do the state stuff. We do not ask the State to validate baptisms or tell us who can receive Communion…

      • First, at the risk of sacrilege, even the most cursory reading of Luther’s works reveals him to be a medieval monk. Personally, while I like what he had to say about women, my wife doesn’t care for his perspective on her gender. Then, she’s put up with it for well over four decades.
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        Second, intent and outcome are not necessarily the same. Furthermore, choices of this nature are not without ramifications. It’s like messing with municipal zoning codes. One change produces ripple effects throughout the entire system.
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        Third, unlike marriages, bapdrismals (no, it’s not a typo) typically don’t have secular ramifications. On the other hand, while the state doesn’t much cares a rat’s hind left foot whether whether or not someone is baptized, when it comes from everything to legal proceedings to taxes, the government wants to know marital status. So do employers, neighbors………..
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        The third item is of particular concern because the institution of marriage is particularly fragile at juncture in history. Notions such as no-fault divorce and serial monogamy have all but made it a license for cohabitation.
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        At this point, to put a different spin on Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Sheep and Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Ducking, Christianity would be much better served if it focused on the 99 rather than throwing out the whole flock because one ugly duckling can be found among them! Of course, to simplify matters, if Christianity continues to ignore marriages, it may not have to worry about it any more because marriage may not be around for it to worry about!!!

        • The state of Virginia DOES take an interest in “bapdrismals”. I was surprised to find here that “A baptismal record or duly certified transcript thereof showing the date of birth and place of baptism of the child” is accepted as a legal evidence of age document. I’m not sure how that can be squared with the first amendment, especially as there is no alternative given for a certificate of circumcision etc (although that would then be discriminatory on gender!)

          • Documents such as family Bibles, affidavits of birth, certificates of baptism, and even “letter[s] of no record [of birth]” issued by the state have been used as alternatives for certificates of live birth in cases where the latter could not be provided. Passports have been issued using various combinations of family Bibles, hospital-issued birth certificates, baptismal certificates, physician post-natal care documentation, Census records, and early education certification paperwork. However, assuming a birth certificate exists, there is typically much more concern over marital status than church watering trough visitation.

  8. The number probably comes from a couple of things. The largest is the value of the deduction taken by donors to churches. It probably also includes the exemption from local property and sales taxes. So part of it would be an extra expense to the individual church, the majority would be the income tax savings received by donors. If this is the case, the profits of the local church are not part of the analysis. If that is the case, this scenario illustrates taking those donations and directly feeding the sheep. Interesting thought experiment to wonder then why we are giving enough but not able to get it done.

  9. One possibility that no one else seems to have considered is that taxing churches could be a backdoor to creation of a state church. Although not likely, the tax exempt status of the infamous Section 501(c)(3) of the United States Internal Revenue Code proved that Washington has the power to decided what constitutes a legitimate church. Just as churches now have to choose between political activism or religious activities in order to be exempt from taxation, other restrictions could also be put into place to narrow the scope of acceptable religiosity. These restrictions already exist in other areas of civic affairs.
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    Laws decide who can practice law or medicine. In turn, the relevant statutes have created professional monopolies. Given that there are even restrictions on who is qualified style hair or drive a big truck, it would seem reasonable that the time may come when spectrum of religions freedom is similarly narrowed. Depending on how courts decide the relevant issues, the First Amendment might not even be an impediment. That’s only the start.
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    In fact, some Christian sects may have already put the noose around their necks before even ascending the gallows. For decades, some preachers have been just dumb enough to claim that Christianity is not a religion. While this conveniently gets around the constitutional prohibition against religious tests for public office as found in Article VI, it excludes Christianity from First Amendment protections!
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    As if that weren’t enough, a few of the more wild-eyed clergy in the Religious Right (to little more than a free pass to an insane asylum) have recently proposed a constitutional convention to create a Christian America. If they get their way, these lunatics of liberty will open a Pandora’s box that will put their posterity in shackles for generations to come.
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    Although permitted as one of four options listed in The Constitution of the United States as penned in 1787, the alternative of an open constitutional convention – with the authority to both propose and ratify constitutional amendments – has never been excised. The principal reason is that is exactly how the original Articles of Confederation written a year after the Declaration of Independence was swept away and replaced by the current secular constitution. A constitutional convention would put EVERYTHING on the table. Those able to best organize would win and everyone else would lose.
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    For over 100 years, the best organized lobbies in the United States has been corporate. That’s how the United States got the legal fiction or corporate personhood. It’s how the 19th century railroads hijacked the fledgling Interstate Commerce Commission. The United States even got its current time zones just for the convenience of scheduling trains!
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    Given the current spectrum of politics in American life, it is quite likely that the hidden corporate hand is behind the present neo-constitutional machinations. Any church they create in the process will exist solely to serve their interests. All others will be crushed. Regressive taxation (shifting the burden to the little man or woman) would be one way of doing this.

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