Why churches shouldn’t pay property taxes

Should churches be tax exempt? In a recent article in Slate, Matthew Yglesias favorably quotes policy wonk Mina Kimes’ call for an end to the tax deduction for contributions to religious organizations:

“If the government is serious about saving money, then it should consider exempting religious donations from the charitable tax break," Kimes is quoted as saying. "Most people give to churches because they want to, not because they get a tax break for their generosity.”

Of the numerous flaws in this idea, the most egregious is the notion that religious organizations aren’t charitable institutions. Do you know of a church (or synagogue, mosque or temple) that doesn’t provide needed social services along with its rites and rituals? The idea that churches aren’t charitable is laughable on its face.

But let’s think about Yglesias’ and Kimes’ proposal for a moment. Assuming you could somehow separate the charitable wheat from the purely religious chaff (which you can’t), would it be good policy to eliminate the tax deductions for religious institutions? Yglesias makes the case that not only are donations to churches deductible, but the land they occupy is also exempt from property taxes. He observes that the tax exemption encourages land ownership by churches that could be put to productive use.

Two questions: Do you know a church that is in the land-hoarding business? Neither do I. Second question: What makes Yglesias think that churches are an unproductive use of land? In comparison to what? An abattoir? A Costco?

A more apt comparison might be to a psychiatric hospital, a use I presume even Yglesias would consider productive. Is a church less productive of social well-being than a psychiatric hospital? Without getting too specific, I would argue that churches are much more productive. Psychiatric hospitals treat very small numbers of very ill people, while churches minister to the spiritual needs of much larger numbers, arguably helping to keep them out of such hospitals. Their contribution to individual well-being, family health and social cohesion is incalculable.

The idea that churches are an unproductive land use betrays a common bias: the belief that attending to the spiritual realm is a private hobby, like stamp collecting or model railroading. Fun for the participant, but of no relevance whatever to society. The privatization of religion is the great tragedy of Modernism, one that the church not only acquiesced to but actually abetted. The church needs to restake its claim in the public square, not as the state’s conduit to God (Europe’s established churches show how well that doesn’t work), but as God’s instrument for the common good.

The fact that smart people like Yglesias and Kimes don’t consider the church to be either charitable or productive could be attributed to their ignorance, or it could be seen as a wake-up call for the church. Perhaps God needs a better PR department. Or perhaps our witness is not as compelling as it should be.

Comments (4)

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I've often wondered if churches should have to pay propert taxes, though I do feel that they are more productive than a Costco.

I don't think that the deduction for giving to churches should be done away with.

My concern is with churches that have large, lavish facilities and seem more concerned with their members having a good time on campus than contributing to their community. If these churches can afford to build a movie theater on their campus (like a church in my neighborhood), then surely they can afford to pay property taxes.

Though, like mentioned in the article, even churches like this do charitable work in the community. It's hard to find the proper line between a church being a charity or a church being a recreational facility that also engages in some charitable work.
The question about churches and taxes isn't coming up now because of some need to fundamentally reexamine the question. It's coming up because the secular humanist nation state is financially broke and in the process of collapsing under the weight of its own hubris. Furthermore, it has to claim all power for itself, and cannot tolerate the competition represented by the church. The sad part is how many Christians support it even though virtually everything it does directly violates what the Bible teaches. The Bible that Christians claim to follow.
It's one thing to talk of this as a matter of civic good or political expediency, and that is a discussion well worth having, but is there a biblical basis for saying churches should not be taxed? None come to mind without a bit of convoluting.
My concern is whether directly or indirectly, churches play a key role in a person's view on politics. And while it certainly doesn't apply to everyone, there are those who, for example, believe, based on the bible and the church teachings, that abortion is wrong and so they vote accordingly which affects everyone and everything related to politics. And like mentioned above, there are churches with ultra-lavish buildings or even churches whose goal is to open up several campuses and the money with which they do this with, while it may be considered offering or what have you, is usually a very large amount. Yet and still, they pay no taxes. And then, regardless of whether or not you're helping your community, some of the practices these churches implement are highly questionable as far as the financial aspect is concerned. If you want to play, it's time to pay.

 

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