Be Careful What We Wish For

Prop 8 Protest at San Francisco City Hall November 15, 2008Do we really want to remove tax exempt status from churches?

Churches already pay tax on business income. If they run a bookstore, a parking lot, or whatever, they pay taxes.

So taking away tax exempt status only means that contributions to them will no longer result in a charitable deduction on your income tax.

But even that small step will help de-fund their hate, right? Sounds reasonable, eh?

After all the Mormon and the Catholic churches advocated the passage of Proposition 8. Let’s punish them for being involved in the world. Even if their involvement for Prop is < 1/20th of their overall work in the community. (Yes, current rules already strip churches of their non-profit status if they use more than 5% of their budget on political issues. So you can be assured that the money these churches spent on gay bashing was a tiny part of their overall budget.)

But, we don’t like what the Mormon’s and Catholics did.

So, let’s make their life a bit more difficult. Sanction them for speaking out on the moral issues of the day and keep them inside their temples on their knees praying. Don’t let them venture into the real world with their unpalatable view of morality.

We really want that? We really want to punish churches who take stands on social issues? I don’t. Even when I think that they are horribly misguided.

We need churches to bring morality – their biased, sometimes ignorant, and occasionally hateful – view of morality into the public debate on issues.

Prop 8 Protest at San Francisco City Hall November 15, 2008We’d still be fighting the Vietnam war if in the 1960’s churches hadn’t raised the moral alarm against that war. Remember those evil Catholic priests Phillip and Daniel Berrigan who caused such a ruckus?

And, how about Civil Rights for blacks? Where did the hothead leaders of that movement come from and get their much of their early support? Clue: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King did not work out of a hospital.

Throughout history churches have been both agents of the oppressive status quo and incubators of enlightenment.

We should not allow any church to dictate public policy. But, their nagging voices can and should make us think a second or third time about any conventional wisdom embraced by the politicians and the public.  We benefit from the diversity of their views, just as they benefit from honoring us and our lives. 

San Francisco Prop 8 Protest November 15, 2008Worse, the “rich” churches who we now want to punish are exactly those who would be untouched by any move to tax churches. The Mormons and Catholics and the right-wing Evangelical biggies have sophisticated lawyers at their disposal.

Tax churches tomorrow and before midnight tonight the Mormon church will be penniless and every Catholic diocese will be property-less. Suddenly there will be Latter Day Saints Foundations with money and no politics. It’ll own the temple lands and allow the LDS churches use them for free. Ditto for the Catholics and other resource-rich denominations.  The churches will continue to harangue, but they’ll have no income and no assets for the hungry tax man.

Still worse, smaller, liberal, do-gooder churches whose views or work we like will suddenly be silenced. They won’t have the sophisticated trust documents in place, so their messages on social issues will be timid. They’ll be afraid to challenge tax breaks to corporations, one-sided bankruptcy laws, or anything sounding vaguely political, especially when they are speaking up for the poor against those with armies of lawyers.

Moreover, taking away the tax status of the churches who do not see morality the way we do is not going to win over a single heart or mind. It’s not going to help repeal Prop 8 or keep any Supreme Court Justices from being thrown out of office in the next election.

This year, many Catholics and Mormons bucked their denomination’s leadership and voted No on 8. If we take after their religion, even in righteous anger, these current allies are going to defend their religious community against attack. We’ll lose their vote and their friendship.

Yes, we need to fight for our rights and for equality. But, we cannot afford to be sidetracked down a feel-good path that won’t bring us toward our goals of civil marriage as a civil right.

Gearing up for a fight about the exempt status of churches instead of working directly for marriage equality is unhappily similar to George W. Bush’s decision to shift the focus from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

We must keep focus on repealing Prop 8 and helping good people understand that the issue is equality for all.

Spending energy on tax policy won’t affect those churches who supported Prop 8, will hurt smaller churches working in the communities, and will alienate friends.

Don’t tell me you took away a tax deduction for a Mormon church, tell me about a Mormon who you talked to about your personal yearning for equal treatment.

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3 Responses to Be Careful What We Wish For

  1. dr_scott says:

    I generally agree with you that a knee-jerk effort to go after religious meddling in political affairs has implications that would have to be carefully considered.

    OTOH, all political donations are made from post-tax money. For parity, organizations which can accept tax-deductible donations should refrain from political activity, like suggesting correct votes on ballot issues.

    Certainly religious groups should feel free to comment on public policy from their perspective so long as they don’t tell people how to vote or donate to campaigns. On what little evidence I have seen it looks like the Mormons went too far, and direct donations for Prop 8 by Catholic organizations are more actionable.

    In the longer term, the exemption of nonprofits and churches from property taxes is an error. The Catholic church, Mormons, and Scientologists have taken advantage of this to amass huge real estate holdings which they develop profitably at a later date without ever having to pay anything toward the government services they have used. Many cities have far more space devoted to church use than makes any sense economically, and taxing *all* property is fairer and forces underused facilities to be returned to more beneficial uses.

    • ozdachs says:

      Last I looked into the property tax question, the property that is exempt must be used for purposes which are in line with the religious purpose of the organization. My church, for example, rents space to non-profits and for wedding/memorial services, but don’t rent to for-profit organizations for their business meetings. And, although most non-profits probably think the rental costs are high, the fees recover the costs for maintenance and staff time are nowhere near market rate for commercial space.

      (From time to time a minister or Board member fantasizes about solving the annual budget problems by aggressively renting space — we then trot out the decades-old research by Church Counsel on property taxes. That douses the flame of rental capitalism.)

      I don’t know about the “rich” churches who have land they develop later. But, there would be a disruption in my church’s services/dramatic increase in cost if we had to pay property taxes on the land we now use for a free after-school program for Tenderloin kids or for the halls we rent to squaredancing.

      Doing away with property taxes might be economically efficient, but there would be a social cost.

  2. tmaher says:

    At the moment, I’d just be content with churches having to at least disclose their finances the same way non-religious non-profits have to.

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