“While we’re on the topic of the fiscal cliff (that’s what everyone’s talking about, isn’t it?) let’s not forget that there’s one hefty sum Congress and the president could raise without too much trouble,” writes columnist Bonnie Erbe. “In April, a University of Tampa professor, Ryan Cragun, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions. They came to the conclusion … the Treasury could raise as much as $71 billion a year.”
She makes two points — first, that some churches engage in political activities, and therefore don’t deserve a tax break. Second, she contends, the government is taking care of the poor now, so churches don’t need those big donations.
Objections to political activities are nothing new; they crop up every election cycle.
But now, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (which spends much of its time protecting us from nativity scenes) is suing in federal court, claiming the IRS is violating the Constitution by not cracking down on “electioneering” from the pulpit. Not taxing churches constitutes the establishment of a state religion, it claims.
The Foundation knows better; the Supreme Court has ruled on the matter repeatedly, most definitively in 1970’s Walz v. Tax Commission.
But Ms. Erbe’s second point is, sadly, much more valid.
“[Churches] were granted tax-exempt status because they were seen at the time as doing local communities an awful lot of good,” she writes.
But that duty has largely been ceded to the government. And that’s a shame, because local congregations are much more effective at addressing poverty in their own communities (economists say 70 percent of government-directed poverty spending goes for overhead, compared to 33 percent or less of religious charitable spending).
Churches are also more flexible and more responsive than government bureaucracies can ever be. Southern Baptist groups were handing out meals to victims of Hurricane Sandy in many places before even FEMA arrived, for example.
But over time, churches have allowed the government to take more and more responsibility for the poor.
And this is one result; a growing call to start taxing churches like businesses.
Bonnie Erbe is wrong about the government being able to do so “without much trouble.” Undoubtedly, fire and brimstone would pour from the pulpits.
But the pressure has begun; and it’s up to churches to remind Americans of the vital role they play.