Thursday, April 14, 2011

Time for the Churches to Render unto Caesar

    With the U.S. debt at $14 trillion and change, Republicans have chosen to balance the budget much like the medieval kings and their priestly partners financed their crusades—shaking down the peasants with threats of hellfire. Or death. In modern terms, this means shutting down government services, busting unions, and eliminating Medicare. What neither medieval monarchs nor medievalist Republicans dare do is tax the guys who make the most money without contributing to the kitty—the churches. It’s time for that to change.

    In Matthew 22:21, Jesus was asked if Jews should pay taxes to the pagan government of Rome, and he famously answered, “Render therefore unto Caesar that which Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” In other words: Yes! Pay up! Send your taxes to Rome, commit your soul to God, keep those priorities straight, and you’ll be in good stead with the Lord come the day when all shall hit the fan.

    But churches, especially the ones that specialize in berating us with the mantra of “personal responsibility,” and never-you-mind looking for government assistance, have long been America’s top freeloaders. What else do you call benefitting from national defense, state highways, and local trash collection, and not paying a dime for any of it?   

    According to the report, "Giving USA", Americans donated roughly $93 billion to religious organizations in 2005. Some of the biggies, like the Catholic, Mormon and Baptist churches, could qualify as Fortune 500 entities. The Mormons, for example, haul in some 7 billion a year in tax-free donations. And this doesn’t count the volunteer labor they get—from investment and legal advice, to real estate consulting, to preschool instruction, barn-raisings, bake sales, and whatever all those altar boys do. 

    Yes, of course, much of their money is used for charitable causes, and that’s all very nice. But can’t they deduct their charitable contributions from their overall revenues like the rest of us? And while others non-profits have to open their books for audit and public scrutiny (they have to file a 990 statement), churches don’t have to. They go on the honor system. I wish the IRS would take my word on how much money I give away.

    The point is not to bilk the churches, but simply to avoid giving them preferential treatment just because they claim a voice in the sky told them to be generous. (Advice they only occasionally follow.) In fact, the Constitution requires they get no special treatment at all: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” states the First Amendment. Yet, specifying religion as a tax-free entity is doing just that. Further, the IRS has to judge which entities are real religions (try starting one in your basement and then deducting all your living expenses) and which are not.

    An IRS attorney cites an example of a “brothel church” where sisterly love is offered to male parishioners in exchange for donations. In Hardenburgh, New York several years ago, 235 of the 239 property owners in that town were granted religious tax exemption because the properties of the owners were made branches of the mail-order "Universal Life Church." In Wisconsin, tax-exempt church holdings include hotels, pay parking lots, farms, and communion wafer bakeries. Overall, at least $4.2 billion in tax-exempt religious property now exists in that state alone.

    All of this forces the government to decide what constitutes a genuine religion vs. a woozy cult or a cabal of con artists—a constitutional no-no. Time for the people of faith to help with our looming debts, and for Uncle Sam to treat all God’s children the same.

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