A recent study suggests that the United States stands to gain a lot by revoking the tax-exempt status of churches and other religious organizations. In fact, the country could gain billions of dollars annually to fund public services and help pay off its debt if churches started paying taxes. Critics of the idea claim that the general public supports tax exemption for diverse religions, while supporters argue that the public should not be forced to subsidize religions they do not follow. What should be the position of ULC ministers on this issue?
The study was conducted by assistant professor of sociology Ryan Cragun and two students at the University of Tampa in the U.S. state of Florida. Cragun and his colleagues examined U.S. tax laws to determine how much money federal, state, and local governments were losing to tax exemptions for religious organizations on business enterprises, capital gains, donations, property, and “parsonage allowances,” which allow ordained ministers, priests, and other clerics to deduct housing expenses. They concluded that states bypass approximately $26.2 billion dollars annually by exempting religious institutions from property tax payments, $41 million annually by exempting such institutions from capital gains tax payments, and $1.2 billion annually through the parsonage allowance for clergy. Combining this with other exemptions, the researchers estimate the U.S. forgoes approximately $71 billion annually in tax revenue.
Supporters of religious tax exemptions have been quick to defend current laws, while critics have been equally swift in criticizing them. Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, is one of the defenders of religious tax exemptions as they currently stand. “Whether it is the Quakers opposing slavery, Reverend King arguing for equality, or a Catholic soup kitchen feeding and sheltering all in need,” he says according to Kimberley Winston of Religion News Service, “our history is full of examples confirming the great public benefit of our religious diversity.” As Rienzi suggests, everybody agrees that subsidizing the activities of all religions through tax exemptions benefits the public.
Others disagree, including Tom Flynn, editor of the magazine Free Inquiry, which is published by the Council for Secular Humanism. Flynn disputes the suggestion that the majority of Americans want to or should be forced to subsidize religious activities. “The issue of religious tax preferment is especially relevant now because the number of Americans living outside any religious tradition continues to grow,” Winston reports him as saying, and that “underscores the unfairness of taxing all Americans to subsidize religious institutions that only some Americans utilize.” As Flynn rightly points out, only some Americans support the activities of any one religion, so Rienzi’s claim that all Americans support subsidizing all religions seems very shaky indeed. Why, for example, should atheists, agnostics, and secular humanists be forcibly taxed to subsidize lavish personal expenditures for Catholic priests?
Should ministers ordained online defend religious tax exemptions, challenge them, or try to find some sort of middle ground? Cragun has a solution to this dilemma. He does not want to completely revoke religious tax exemptions; rather, he suggests, such exemptions should be reserved for non-profit organizations whose services the government would have to replace if those organizations vanished. In the United States, this would mean non-sectarian services which benefit everyone, and not just the interests of a specific religion. As a Universal Life Church minister, do you think it is possible to strike such a compromise?