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End the religious tax exemption?

End the religious tax exemption?

Mark Oppenheimer, who writes the Beliefs columns in The New York Times, argues for ending the non-profit tax exemption in the wake of Obergefell v. Hodges, the landmark Supreme Court case on marriage for same-sex couples.

From the op-ed:

The Supreme Court’s ruling on gay marriage makes it clearer than ever that the government shouldn’t be subsidizing religion and non-profits

Oppenheimer notes that Senator Mike Lee of Utah publicly fretted that the case would possibly result in churches losing their tax exemption, and disagrees with liberal voices portraying Lee’s words as hyperbolic. Rather, Oppenheimer, a supporter of gay rights, claims that Lee is probably correct about the likely outcome of the case.

Oppenheimer builds his case at the intersection of social justice and taxation–taking so much property off of tax rolls cuts into the coffers of cities and towns–and mentions that some clergy are paid six-figure salaries. (Note: The average salary is a much more modest $47,730 Figures US Department of Labor) Many churches currently employ clergy in part-time capacity, without benefits and with very low pay, but require much greater time commitments than they are compensating.

Oppenheimer also notes that operating soup kitchens, clothing drives, and other charitable actions cost money and provide public good, but asserts that it’s properly the job of the government. This doesn’t take into account how poorly the government currently does these jobs; from drug war policy to incarceration to homelessness programs, America continues to lag behind other modern nations in alleviating suffering and decreasing poverty.

What do you think? Do you see the link he references between this case and tax-exemption? Do you agree with his points? What do you think would happen to quarter time and half time clergy with the elimination of the exemption? Do you think some of the objections that could be raised have solutions missed in this article?


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JC Fisher

Oppenheimer’s argument is really silly; it’s not going to happen (esp. so, as we now see more and more religious groups SUPPORTING human rights!).

John Chilton

No, Mr. Frodge, you’ve misremembered the exchange.

“Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­ exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating. So would the same apply to a university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?”

Alito is asking about an institution discriminating on the basis of a potential student’s or employee’s marital status. He is not asking about churches — it is a given that they can refuse to perform marriages on the basis of gender.

But seminaries could lose their tax exempt status for reasons that parallel the Bob Jones case.

See also,

Jim Frodge

Thank you for the clarification.

Jim Frodge

I was initially skeptical about all of this but I am not quite as certain now.

In Bob Jones University v. United States the university had its tax exempt status removed because the school had a policy forbidding inter racial dating. The court ruled that this policy violated “established public policy” and federal law allows the government to remove the tax exempt status of any organization that does so. The Supreme Court has now established same sex marriage as established public policy. The Solicitor General of the United States was asked during oral arguments before the court about this same issue as it pertains to the tax exempt status of churches that forbid same sex marriage and he responded that “it could be an issue”.

Having said this I find it hard to believe that the IRS has any desire to go after churches, or in our case diocesan bishops, that refuse same sex marriages.

Scott Wesley

Just a couple of thoughts – I think the piece that triggered this discussion is flimsy at best, but it is an important discussion. Tax exemption for religious institutions is a time honored tradition in the US – but honored differently in different states. In NY, where I am, if we own property it is tax exempt unless we lease or use it for some purpose outside our Certificate of Incorporation. But in NJ, just next door, we would have an allowance of a set number of acres per building. So a religious institution with a large land holding sitting idle would be taxable. And this form of limiting of tax exemption might be a reasonable way forward, should we come to a time when tax exemptions are truly to be eliminated. As for being exempt from ADA – that is not correct. Any new construction, no matter the purpose, must comply as ADA is simply now the North American Building Code. Where we are given latitude is bringing existing buildings into compliance – and that latitude is not just ours, but applies all existing buildings. If we were public buildings the rules would be much stiffer. At the end of the day, I think we have obligations to be good and constructive members of our communities – which is consistent with Christian tradition and with the privilege of being tax exempt. But to tie any of this into marriage, equal or otherwise, seems to be alarmist. (and just an odd side note – tax exempt in NY is not “fee” exempt… so we don’t pay property tax, but we do pay library “fee” and fire “fee” – which I don’t begrudge at all).

Paul Woodrum

The power to tax is the power to destroy. Tax exemption from the state for religious groups protects them from that state power and preserves separation. Church registration of marriages, an echo of English practice left over from days when civil government on the frontier often lacked the means to maintain vital statistics, is somewhat of an anachronism today, convenient, perhaps, but hardly necessary. However, that is a different issue than tax exemption that gives expression to the First Amendment.

Anne Bay

As a lifetime Episcopalian I have always thought the tax-exempt status needs investigation. While some churches seem to be “rolling in dough” others are barely hanging on. Episcopal Churches notoriously seem to be on the less affluent end of the scale. One Bishop who had the opportunity to buy land in southern California in the 1960’s refused and said the Episcopal Church was not in the real estate business. That being said, if he had, with the price of what land in So. Calif. is worth now, the whole financial picture of the Diocese would be very different. When Pastor Schuller’s Chrystal Cathedral went into serious financial distress it was sold to the Roman Catholic Church for $30,000,000.00 Cash!!!! In my background it is hard to believe any church group would be able to come up with that much money. So, definitely, I would have to agree all churches and church owned businessess, schools, etc. need to be looked at. in addition to that though, I think the credentials of all church pastors needs to have some kind of guidelines. And the kinds of money raising schemes among the tv religious shows needs to be examined. I still remember Oral Roberts selling towels with magic water on them being sold on his tv show from Oklahoma. Hard to believe. My dad told me about the tent preachers that would go through Kansas and methods they used to raise money for their tent preaching. He even saw Homer Rodohever in person outside of his Kansas hometown. My dad said they were very smooth at what they did, and so I am sure the tv and radio preachers use a lot of those same methods. I think it would be beneficial to start addressing the finances of all churches. I always cringe when (and it still goes on) some radio /tv “preacher” thanks someone on limited income for sending in part of their social security for God……yikes. So, yes, investigation into all these groups needs addressing.

Bill Ghrist

Mark Oppenheimer seems to have a rather simplistic understanding of how easy it is to distinguish which institutions are deserving of continued tax exemption. If he thinks that tax exemption for non-profit hospitals is non-controversial, he obviously lives nowhere near Pittsburgh. Getting tax-exempt hospitals and universities to contribute a fair share to support local government is an ongoing issue here. The amount of tax-exempt church property in the city pales in comparison to that of the universities and health facilities. We also have a war going on between the largest (near monopoly) medical system and the largest health insurer (both “non-profit”). So much for hospitals (with several seven-figure executive salaries) being non-controversial.

Part of the problem is over reliance on the property tax. It makes sense that property owners, even charitable ones, should contribute to the governmental units that support them with roads, police, fire protection, etc., but real estate has become a proxy for wealth in the tax system, and that is a poor fit for most charitable organizations.

Given the current political climate in this country, The Lead is correct to point out that is naive to expect the government to provide adequate replacement for the real social good that most charitable organizations supply.

I am, however, sympathetic to the view that some religious organizations overstep their bounds in trying to impose their own moral constraints on those outside of their membership. We really need to have them recognize how much that potentially hurts themselves by giving credence to proposals like Oppenheimer’s.

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