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Tax exemption and progressive religion

Tax exemption and progressive religion

The New York Times ran a “Room for Debate” on whether churches should continue to enjoy tax exemption. Among the variety of views was the observation that tax-exemption allows for freedom of religious expression by small progressive groups mainly in cities where taxes are generally higher.

The Rev. Winnie Varghese, priest in charge at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery in New York City. writes:

The religion headlines aren’t on my side lately. If I were not religious, I might want to make religions, particularly conservative Christians, pay for the privilege of their bully pulpits.

But I am religious — a progressive Christian — and I will argue for the tax-exempt status of religious organizations for only one reason. Moderate and progressive religion is overwhelmingly formed in the U.S., and it is an essential voice in national and international discourse. We are an important moral and ethical voice for society as a whole, a voice that has to be religious to respond to other kinds of religious movements.

The bottom line is that if historic churches like the one I serve had to pay property taxes, many of us would close. The liberal, diverse, urban churches in historic buildings would be priced out, and the newer, suburban minimall churches would be the church of the future. They are not always, but tend to be, overwhelmingly conservative. In the political arena, the right defends its agenda by that same conservative Christian language. The Christian center and left are a minority whose faith demands they work toward a more just or compassionate society, and many of us are also the stewards of prime real estate.

Our tax-exempt status gives minority views a space to seed and grow, often ahead of the political culture. This is possible in part because of the diverse church communities that develop because of where the buildings happen to be. We are not the majority in our traditions, but we are game changers.


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Weiwen Ng

While it’s probably true that the Christian center and left benefit the most from property tax exemption, that is not a compelling public policy case to continue the exemption. We shouldn’t be using tax policy to favor certain political orientations.

Some key arguments to end the property tax exemption are that it deprives cities of needed revenue – especially true in cities with a lot of hospitals, universities and churches. Those entities do consume public services, like law enforcement and fire protection. The property tax is how we pay for that, but this means that everyone else in the area is subsidizing these groups. And if their taxes go up, everyone else’s taxes could, in principle, go down.

One could also make the observation that the exemption has allowed churches to keep operating when they weren’t viable – without the exemption, they might have made changes to adapt earlier. Like, ahem, trying to be more attractive to young folks.

Lastly, changing that tax exemption doesn’t mean that governments would tax churches, universities and hospitals overnight. The tax would be phased in (we hope). Organizations would adapt. Of course, there’s a tricky question on how to value the land, but I think it can be done.

I mean, in principle, I agree with Rev. Varghese. But again, she does not articulate a compelling public policy case. In fact, with all due respect, her case is a poor one.

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