Nel's New Day

May 27, 2012

Churches Should be Taxed for Their Political Positions

Today is Sunday, and in the United States thousands of pastors, many of them in fundamentalist churches, are telling people how they vote. The most recent egregious display of hate and ignorance came from Pastor Charles L. Worley who was videotaped telling his Providence Road Baptist Church congregation in Maiden (NC):

“I figured a way out, a way to get rid of all the lesbians and queers, but I couldn’t get it past the Congress. Build a great big, large fence–50 or a 100 miles long–and put all the lesbians in there. Fly over and drop some food. Do the same thing with the queers and the homosexuals, and have that fence electrified so they can’t get out. Feed them. And you know in a few years, they’ll die out. You know why? They can’t reproduce.”

Within two days, the video got 250,000 hits. It’s since been taken off the church’s website, but nothing ever escapes the web once it’s out there.

A follower of Pastor Worley has since appeared on Anderson Cooper to say that she supports what her religious leader has said. The wonderful thing about this country is the freedom to say what you mean. But the bad thing about this country is that taxpayers have to pay for where they are exhorting people to keep all the people in the nation from having equal rights.

Because of the separation of church and state, local, state, and federal governments have decided not to tax institutions of faith although the Constitution does not give any guidance in this area. The basic premise behind the tradition of not taxing churches is the their profits go to the public good, caring for the poor and sick, projects that help the community.

The government, however, has no idea where churches allocate their profits, gleaned from donations from usually well-meaning people.  Any non-church organization with tax-exempt status must file a 990 statement each year that itemizes where all the group’s money has gone. Yet the IRS automatically waives the 990 requirement for all churches.

“Televangelism” permits corrupt religious leaders to live in luxury, without paying taxes. Megachurches buy cheap land for buildings and then take advantage of all the services that other residents support, without paying taxes. Their businesses such as coffee shops and bookstores, all pour profits back into the church, without paying taxes. And it’s all legal. Wisconsin alone has at least $4.2 billion in tax-exempt religious property, including hotels, pay parking lots, farms, and communion wafer bakeries. Think Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry.

For over two centuries, those of us who think that the wealthy should pay taxes, to quote some conservative legislators, to “have some skin in this game,” just sighed and moved on. As churches become more and more involved in politics, usually with the acceptance of the parishioners, the concern is growing about letting politically associated organizations go untaxed. Fifty years ago, voters worried about the influence of the Catholic Church on a presidential candidate. Now many voters want the fundamentalist churches to control the government. Conservative political figures hold the Constitution in one hand and the Bible in the other, showing where they receive their leadership.

Moving beyond just advocating for social issues, “family values” religious organizations have developed 501c4s that let them advocate for candidates. Supposedly donations for these organizations are kept separate from those to the churches, but with no 990 requirement, the IRS—and the taxpayers—will never know. Pastors and priests invite candidates to “give testimony” during services and claim that this does not violate their tax-exempt status.  Some religious leaders actively endorse candidates, and the law does nothing about this.

The Mormon Church spent as much as $20 million to pass Proposition 8 in California, the law that prevents marriage equality. Initially, they reported spending less than $3,000, then said that they had really spent 99 percent more, and finally admitted spending even more, possibly up to half the funding for passing Prop 8. Last year on Father’s Day, as many as 150 to 200 Maine churches passed the collection plate twice, the second time to collect money to defeat the marriage equality measure.

The United States Council of Catholic Bishops has become a political force to be reckoned with, telling priests how they should preach to the congregations about the evils of the Affordable Care Act and other issues that benefit the Catholic leadership. The idea that the Catholic Church should be tax-exempt is totally hypocritical, especially because of its vendetta against the nuns for just helping the poor.

Church leaders demand nuns  fight marriage equality and women’s reproductive rights, both political issues, instead of helping the poor as their tax-exempt status requires. While Catholic leaders sue the government for requiring birth control from these tax-exempt institutions, they shelter priests who have sexually abused children, going so far as to shred lists of “problem priests,” as Cardinal Anthony Beviilacqua did.

By 1971, U.S. churches owned approximately $110 billion in real and personal property. In just New York City, the amount was $3 billion in 1989. A 1986 estimate showed religious income for just that one year of about $100 billion, five times the income of the five largest corporations in the U.S.  All tax free, all using services that taxpayers pay for.

The writers of the Constitution saw how religion devastated countries and worried about the same tragedy with the new country. “The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries,” wrote James Madison.

Religion is fundamentally unjust. LGBTQ people pay taxes to support institutions that want to put us behind fences with the only food dropped by planes. Women pay taxes to support institutions that restrict clergy to men or preach that women should be subservient to men. If churches really wanted to help the poor, they would willingly pay taxes that provide a safety net for the most vulnerable of people in this country.

“Unique among the nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. We have no king but Jesus,” wrote former Attorney General John Ashcroft. “[I]ntentional governmental advancement of religion is sometimes required by the Free Exercise Clause,” said Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia.According to the Constitution, the United States should not be a theocracy. Yet many of the legislators, both federal and state, are religious zealots, and the Republican presidential candidates this year have followed suit.

Imagine how much better off you would be if you didn’t pay taxes. That’s where the churches are. At this time, Italy is thinking about requiring churches (that would be the Catholic Church) to pay taxes. It’s time that the United States considered this too. If churches are determined to control politics, they should pay the taxes.

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