Writing for the Alban Institute, Dan Hotchkiss asks some hard questions about the tax breaks that churches receive from the government.
Public support for congregations endures today in several forms, including exemption from direct taxation and a variety of indirect benefits like the charitable tax deduction and the clergy housing allowance….
One fact needs to be laid on the table frankly: as with most tax benefits, the big beneficiaries of church tax exemption are the big players—large congregations and highly-compensated ministers. A few clergy—those who earn over $100,000 a year—make out very well. Such a minister, married to a surgeon, living in a million-dollar house can save more than $20,000 a year in taxes compared to a non-minister in similar circumstances.
Small, marginal congregations benefit from tax-favored treatment, in the sense that their buildings can sit idle as their numbers dwindle, and sometimes for years afterward. But is this really a benefit to congregations, or to faith? What if failing congregations had to close more quickly, as other non-profits do when they have ceased to serve the public? Might the religious enterprise actually be strengthened?
A sudden loss of the clergy housing allowance as a result of an adverse decision would undoubtedly be harsh and unfair. We should lobby hard for legislation to soften the blow. But if we take the position that tax-free housing is our right, or necessary for the freedom of religion, we risk making ourselves look a bit ridiculous.