When it comes to religion, regardless of denomination, America’s churches, synagogues, mosques, Mormon temples, and even centers of Scientology don’t pay a cent in taxes—and they haven’t for about 200 years. This tax exemption is not reinforced by any mention in the Constitution, nor was it ever part of any design by the founding fathers. Actually, according to the very tax code of the IRS, many religious institutions actually should pay tax by law, for it is legally forbidden for private institutions, religious or otherwise, to have tax-exempt status and publicly endorse political candidates, yet it happens all of the time.
Even the lowest estimates suggest that the tax-exempt status for religious houses in the United States ends up costing Americans something close to 100 billion dollars every year. That also just looks at tax-exempt church donations, and doesn’t take into account charges such as property tax, which could put the figure into the hundreds of billions. Even if you are a devoutly religious U.S. citizen, the fact is that you may be actively subsidizing a propagation of beliefs that you do not necessarily share—for again, all religions, not just Christianity, are exempt from paying taxes, something that many see as unconstitutional.This especially becomes legally worrying during political campaigns.
Evangelical mega-churches tell their congregations to endorse evangelical candidates, or in some cases even abstain from voting altogether if no candidates fit the bill. Senators and congressmen alike make guest appearances at large church services. Some preachers have even gone as far to say that how you vote determines how you get into heaven. A few years ago, the documentary “Jesus Camp” even demonstrated that the youngest members of some more militant congregations have even been asked to bow down and bless cardboard cutouts of George Bush Junior as if he were some sort of deity.
Now of course, most religious groups do not take things to this extreme. And even if they did, that isn’t the point. People have every right to voice their beliefs. The real question is, why would any private institution, religious or not, be tax-exempt? Many have made the case that taxing religious institutions is morally wrong, because it limits the amount of humanitarian aid that religious institutions provide to communities across the world. This is not a consistent argument, for by that definition countless secular charities, nonprofits, and private institutions that contribute to charitable causes should then also be tax exempt, yet they still pay some form of taxes. Many houses of worship also do rake in huge profits, and are easily exploited by individuals seeking to evade taxes, or even launder money, as was recently revealed in Brazil, a country where many churches are also tax exempt.
Still, because so many American leaders get that final bump in the polls from their relationships with some of America’s largest churches, odds are that religions aren’t likely to be taxed anytime soon. This issue, also raising concerns about the separation of church and state, has been debated for decades, one of the most outspoken critics of religious tax exemption being the deceased American writer Gore Vidal (critique begins below at 6:20).
And although the tone of this debate ranges from utterly pious to utterly sarcastic, it truly shouldn’t be seen as one that puts people of faith on one side and people who are secular on the other. The truth of the matter is, in a time of budget cuts in the United States, taxing religion like any other private enterprise could raise the U.S. federal government hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used to slash deficits, repair crumbling infrastructure, and improve the quality of life for Americans all over the country. Such a thing doesn’t sound terribly against the doctrine of the world’s major religions, whose texts primarily emphasize helping the poor. Equally important is that taxing religion in America would also allow certain religious leaders to speak out in favor of or against political candidates without breaking the law.
Every individual, regardless of their beliefs, should have a right to say what they believe, wherever and whenever they want. That being said, this can only be fairly upheld if every private institution is also committed to contributing to the society that upholds their citizenry’s rights to free speech, and freedom of religious assembly.