It’s Time for Churches to Pay Their Share

moneyThere is an indoor public pool in Brooklyn, New York that has become the subject of a growing debate over discrimination. This is nothing new, public pools were a large issue in the civil rights battles of the 1950’s and 60’s, and public bathhouses have been significant in debates over gay rights. This one is a bit different though, as the subject is religious discrimination. Three times a week, the public pool in Williamsburg segregates by gender for a women-only swimming session. This is done in deference to the local Hasidic Jewish community, which does not allow women to swim with men. While this policy has been in place for several years, not everyone is happy with it. A complaint was registered with New York City’s Human Right’s Commission, and that has opened a whole can of worms.

Why should anyone care about a pool in Brooklyn? To me, it brings up a much larger issue; separation of church and state (For the purposes of this essay, I will use church to refer to all religious institutions). This is a concept that we have long held dear in the US, in words if not always in actions. However, it is a concept we have always ignored in all but the most extreme situations. I think it is time for that to change. I believe that a strict separation of church and state should be enforced in all aspects of public life, for all religions. This is a much bigger issue than most people think. Religion is so deeply integrated in our public life that we don’t even notice it anymore.

We can start by looking at one of the core functions of government, whether it be local, state, or federal; collecting taxes. All governments, throughout history, everywhere in the world, collect taxes. It is how they exist as an institution. The type and manner of taxes collected is a whole different debate for another time. Except in Kentucky. Kentucky is building an ark. Rather, a private company in Kentucky is building an ark, and the state is helping to pay for it. Typically, a private, for-profit company building a project that will create jobs and bring tourists is supported by state and local governments. Tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, and other assistance are often provided. But this private company functions as a church, building a facility for a particular religious group and requiring potential employees to belong to that religious group. This is discrimination on the part of the company, and support of a specific religion on the part of the government.

Kentucky’s giant ark brings us to the larger issue of the government providing financial support for religious institutions. A church in Maine has asked for funding to repair their clock tower, and many are not happy about the $75,000 check the town of Camden has written. However, this church, and many others, are supported in a much more financially beneficial way; tax exemption. Churches do not pay taxes. I believe that all religious institutions should pay taxes, just like everyone else. Current federal law exempts any organization that the IRS determines to be religious from paying taxes. First of all, the IRS is a bunch of accountants, how are they qualified to determine what is, or is not, a religion? Second, how is Scientology included in that group? Third, what benefit does this exemption provide to the general public? I will address these questions in order.

In the early twentieth century several new tax laws were initiated, and it was written into these laws that churches and other religious institutions should be exempt from taxes. At that time the government didn’t provide many services beyond maintaining a military and a court system, so it made some sense to some people. Later in the 20th century, a rule was added to the IRS code prohibiting churches from electioneering. Although there are many ways around this rule, it has been responsible in the few cases where tax-exempt status was revoked.

Unfortunately, the lawmakers of the early and mid-20th century could never have imagined the amounts of money at stake for today’s “non-profit” religious organizations. Some argue that all religious groups shouldn’t be punished because of a few bad actors, and that argument is not without merit. That said, the constitution states that no official state religion shall be established. And by deciding which religious groups receive tax-exempt status, the IRS is establishing state religions, and doing a bad job of it. The best example of this ineptitude is the “Church” of Scientology.

This group attempted to get out of paying taxes in the 70’s, unsuccessfully. They then waged a campaign of harassment and intimidation on individuals who worked for the IRS and their families. After nearly twenty years of this behavior, the head of the IRS met with the head of the Scientology group. Though it has never been revealed, most who have investigated the issue believe that the IRS caved under pressure and awarded tax-exempt status to a group that no one actually believed to deserve it.

That leaves public benefit. How does it help me or you to have religious groups’ activities subsidized by our tax dollars? There are generally two lines of thought on this. The first is that churches are, at heart, charitable organizations, and that the money they make goes to charitable acts. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t support this. For example, Walmart gave more to charity in 2011 than the Church of Latter Day Saints has in the last 25 years. That may be comparing apples to oranges, but the logic holds when looking at the overall numbers as well. The average church spends roughly 80% of its income on operating expenses, with the remaining 20% going to charitable works and “other expenses.” Contrast that with a more typical non-profit organization, such as the Red Cross. The Red Cross spends 7% of its income on operating expenses, and 93% on services.

The second public benefit has to do with freedom of religion. Many believe that by forcing a religious group to pay taxes to the government, that government is restricting free practice of religion. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, as I agree with the basic premise, but I do not believe that taxing the institution restricts the practitioners. Individuals practice religion as a mental exercise. Having a building to meet in is not a prerequisite to this practice. Owning property, or drinking wine from a jewel-encrusted goblet, may be common practices of many churches, but it is not necessary for religious practice. To take this a step further, I would keep a tax exemption for individuals on charitable donations. But, I would not include money given to a church in that category.

To be clear, I would not prohibit government from extending support (financial or otherwise) to religious organizations, I would just prohibit discrimination through that support. Treat a church as a business, because by definition, that’s what it is. Here I will give an example through personal experience. On Sundays, around churches, all parking laws seem to be suspended. If I am going to a restaurant on a Sunday morning and I park in a tow zone or on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, I will get towed or get a ticket. Yet churchgoers never get towed or ticketed when parked illegally outside of a church during a meeting. This is support through discrimination. If people know it is easier to park someplace, more of them will go there. More people through the door means more money collected.

I have spent very little time in this essay addressing religious beliefs directly. That is because I do not care what religious beliefs an individual holds, they are entitled to those beliefs. But they are not entitled to force those beliefs upon me. Let’s return to that neighborhood in Brooklyn for a moment. Jewish people in general do not eat pork, and this is especially prevalent in the Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg. McCarren Park is a popular place for people to picnic on Sunday afternoons. Could the parks department that created restricted swim time create restricted pork time? From noon until 5 pm on Sundays no pork is allowed in McCarren Park. Of course not, it’s absurd, no one would even propose it. But it is no different than restricting swim time in a public pool.

I believe in freedom of religion, absolutely. I believe in freedom of expression, without a doubt. I also believe that the government should act in the best interests of the community as a whole. And I think that a strict separation of church and state is in the community’s best interest.




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