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Religion and taxes

Seeing the Maetreum of Cybele win its tax fight was satisfying:  justice prevailed, a small Pagan congregation gets treated with respect, the separation between church and state is preserved (if not strengthened) by a decision that basically said that local governments don't get to decide what religions look like.

The underlying principle -- that religious institutions don't get taxed -- is being upheld in a fair and consistent manner.  But in the belief that a good idea bears up under examination, all this hubbub inspired me to ask whether or not it's a good idea not to tax churches in the first place.

For the sake of clarity, I'm following the IRS usage of the word "church" in this post -- it's a broadly-defined term that includes all manner of organized religious activity, including circles, covens, temples, and other terms that Pagans use to describe how they worship together.  It's similar to how the God on money is secular, so at least the government is being consistent.

What surprised me is that this question has been batted around in the USA since the Civil War at least.  According to one source,

President Grant submitted a 900-foot long petition containing 35,000 signatures to Congress in 1875, demanding "that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation."

That's a lot of legwork for 1875, collecting 35,000 signatures.  Clearly, this is a contentious issue.  Those opposed see this as a subsidy, those who pay taxes supporting religious institutions which do not, making them de facto supporters of the church.  On the other side are those who believe taxation would give government undue influence over churches, together with those who point to the social welfare provided by those churches as a reason to encourage them with tax breaks.

I look at a group like the Maetreum of Cybele, whose building serves as temple and women's shelter, and I think to myself yes, this is exactly what the tax exemption for churches is all about.  They provide services to their community at large, as well as opportunities for deep work with their goddess.  An exemption frees them from financial pressures which might otherwise drag this small group under long before it has a chance to restore the Cybelline path to mainstream Pagan awareness.

But on the other hand, if you've got $250,000 to burn on a statue of your god, I'm not so sure the tax exemption is serving the social-welfare purpose quite so clearly, although there was an interesting argument for improved traffic safety on that stretch of road.

The churches along this spectrum of wealth and service represent all faiths.  While some seem to be designed solely as tax shelters, most fulfill the sacred and social missions expected of them with varying degrees of success.  Removing the exemptions would be devastating to some, while leaving them untouched would continue to unfairly enrich others.

A more middle-ground approach might be to ask churches to comply with the same requirements as other non-profits, which have to submit regular tax and financial filings.  At present, churches are also exempt from such IRS requirements.

I don't know if churches deserve an automatic tax exemption.  Even assuming that they provide social welfare services, there was a lot of flack given to "faith-based initiatives" because not everybody wants to fund religious institutions.  I don't patronize Salvation Army for this reason, among others.  I believe in giving, but I'm not sure I believe in making all my neighbors support things I happen to believe in.

But if you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs, removing the church exemption would make a really big omelet indeed.  Probably bigger than a lot of us could stomach, as our system tried to adjust and find different ways to deliver services, as well as new economic models to support churches.  How much would the donation streams to megachurches and televangelists drop off without a write-off?  Would the change for the corner coven operating on a razor-thin budget be hit harder, relatively speaking?

Practically speaking, tax exemptions for churches aren't likely to vanish without some serious political pressure, and that kind of pressure takes time to build.  There is a lot of noise about taxing churches, but it seems to be just noise so far.  The system has its flaws, but it's been ruled constitutional by the courts, so for me, working with it to promote more Pagan congregations is a more productive strategy than seeking to change or eliminate the special way we treat churches.

I'd be interested in knowing about any legally-recognized Pagan churches that readers are members of, and about how many members those churches have.  How are we actually doing on the legal front?

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Terence P Ward is a business writer and journalist who blogs under the rather cumbersome moniker of True Pagan Warrior.  He can generally be found at home, tending to his gardens and the many demands of his cats; in the alternative, follow TPW on Facebook. 


  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 28 November 2013

    Mr. Ward,

    Thanks for your article. I had no idea that in 1875, President U.S. Grant tried to abolish the tax-free status of churches and other religious institutions!

    P.S. Based on one of your links, I guess The Powers That Be didn't care for Touchdown Jebus. Though I must say, 'Touchdown Artemis', strategically framing the rising Moon at the start of an important holy festival, WOULD be a pretty awesome complement to a proper temple to Her...

    as long as precautions were taken to minimize lightning damage. Just sayin'.

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