The primary reason churches in the United States have been tax-exempt thus far is due to the protection granted to them through the separation of church and state. In other words, churches are tax-exempt because taxing them would—according to some—violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the government from making laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” The clause “not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion, but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another [and it] prohibits the government from unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion,” according to Cornell University Law School.
Now, the opposing argument is that tax exemptions for religious organizations violates this clause and the separation of church and state, because those organizations are benefiting financially from their exemption—meaning that the government shows favoritism to religion over non-religion. In Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York (May 4, 1970), Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, William O. Douglas, stated, “If believers are entitled to public financial support, so are nonbelievers. A believer and nonbeliever under the present law are treated differently because of the articles of their faith… I conclude that this tax exemption is unconstitutional.”
Aside from these two positions, there are a plethora of other arguments both for and against the taxation of religious organizations, but the one I want to focus on is the influence of government on religion versus the influence of religion on government.
Right now, religious organizations are tax exempt because of the aforementioned interpretation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment and that government cannot influence religious organizations. What I mean by this is that the government cannot pressure or force a religious organization to change its dogma. The government cannot lobby, say, the Catholic Church to change its views on abortion; but, this is precisely what is happening when you look at it from the other way around. Religious organizations have a tremendous influence over government, despite the supposed separation of church and state.
According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, over 200 religious lobbying and advocacy groups spend nearly 400 million dollars yearly lobbying for policy changes in government. Yet, there are only two groups that lobby on behalf of secular Americans, who account for nearly 23 percent of the population, according to Pew Research Center.
That being said, it’s obvious that the expectations set forth for the government—in terms of not influencing religious institutions—are not the same for religious organizations themselves. Even though it is perfectly legal for these organizations to lobby the government, it is not constitutional, nor is it ethical.
According to a study done by University of Tampa, the cost to the economy by keeping churches tax exempt is about 71 billion dollars annually. To put that in stark perspective, the United Nations estimates that it would take 30 billion dollars a year to end world hunger. According to The Atlantic (which got its figures from the Department of Education’s data on how much money public colleges collected from undergraduates in 2012), it would cost the government 62.6 billion dollars a year to make college tuition-free. Even more shocking is how much it would cost to end homelessness in the U.S.—just 20 billion dollars, according to Mark Johnston, head of the Office of Community Planning and Development within the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
If we tax religious organizations—that, in my mind, have lost their exemption privilege for their lobbying of the government—we would add upwards of 70 billion dollars to the economy and, more importantly, I think, we could put that money to great use. Free college? End world hunger? End homelessness? To me, it’s no question, especially considering religious organizations have the power to change policy—such as the colossal fight to take away a woman’s right to her own body, or which groups of people should be allowed to marry, or even what we (as consenting adults) are permitted to do in the privacy of our own bedrooms.
As long as the religious continue to hold our secular government (well, intended to be secular government, anyway) hostage to stone-age beliefs on sexuality, equality and the like—as long as religious institutions hold sway over what rights we have as Americans—I say tax the hell out of the churches.
At least we could end world hunger and homelessness in the U.S. with that money while the churches are worried about who’s having sex with who.