Churches and Taxes
Pros and Cons
Video exploring critical thinking and how it leads to great citizen involvement
Last updated on: 2/19/2013 5:23:01 PM PST

Should Churches (Defined as Churches, Temples, Mosques, Synagogues, etc.) Remain Tax-Exempt?


PRO (yes) CON (no)
Erik Stanley, JD, Senior Legal Counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, stated in his Mar. 7, 2012 post titled "Should Churches Be Tax Exempt?" on Alliance Defending Freedom's "Speak Up" blog:
"There are very sound and valid reasons for church tax exemption... The social benefit theory justifies tax exemption for churches as a kind of bargain – churches provide needed services, so they are entitled to tax exemption.

One corollary of the 'social benefit' theory that is often overlooked is what I have termed the 'intangible benefit' theory of tax exemption. This highlights the intangible and often unseen benefits provided by churches to the community. Things like reduced crime rates resulting from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens who contribute to the well-being of the community. It is difficult to put a price tag on these types of intangible benefits provided by churches, but there is no question that they exist..."

Mar. 7, 2012 - Erik Stanley, JD 

Winnie Varghese, MDiv, Priest in Charge at St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery, New York City, wrote in her May 10, 2012 NYTimes.com article titled "Sustaining Progressive Faith":
"...I am religious -- a progressive Christian -- and I will argue for the tax-exempt status of religious organizations for only one reason. Moderate and progressive religion is overwhelmingly formed in the U.S., and it is an essential voice in national and international discourse. We are an important moral and ethical voice for society as a whole, a voice that has to be religious to respond to other kinds of religious movements.

The bottom line is that if historic churches like the one I serve had to pay property taxes, many of us would close. The liberal, diverse, urban churches in historic buildings would be priced out, and the newer, suburban minimall churches would be the church of the future. They are not always, but tend to be, overwhelmingly conservative. In the political arena, the right defends its agenda by that same conservative Christian language. The Christian center and left are a minority whose faith demands they work toward a more just or compassionate society, and many of us are also the stewards of prime real estate.

Our tax-exempt status gives minority views a space to seed and grow, often ahead of the political culture."

May 10, 2012 - Winnie Varghese, MDiv 

Mark L. Rienzi, JD, Senior Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, stated in his May 10, 2012 NYTimes.com article titled "Good for Religion, Good for America":
"Religious exemptions are an essential part of our democracy. They provide breathing space for religious individuals and institutions to exist. They benefit all Americans, regardless of religion or lack thereof...

[Exemptions] protect religious liberty by providing room for religious institutions to thrive with minimal government encroachment and burden. That is why federal, state and local governments have virtually always exempted churches from taxation...

Simply put, religious exemptions preserve religious freedom, which benefits us all."

May 10, 2012 - Mark L. Rienzi, JD 

Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, the US Supreme Court case whose 7-1 majority opinion dated May 4, 1970 was written by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, stated:
"...[F]or the men who wrote the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment, the 'establishment' of a religion connoted sponsorship, financial support, and active involvement of the sovereign in religious activity...

The grant of a tax exemption is not sponsorship, since the government does not transfer part of its revenue to churches, but simply abstains from demanding that the church support the state. No one has ever suggested that tax exemption has converted libraries, art galleries, or hospitals into arms of the state or put employees 'on the public payroll.' There is no genuine nexus between tax exemption and establishment of religion...

The exemption creates only a minimal and remote involvement between church and state, and far less than taxation of churches. It restricts the fiscal relationship between church and state, and tends to complement and reinforce the desired separation insulating each from the other...

Nothing in this national attitude toward religious tolerance and two centuries of uninterrupted freedom from taxation has given the remotest sign of leading to an established church or religion, and, on the contrary, it has operated affirmatively to help guarantee the free exercise of all forms of religious belief. Thus, it is hardly useful to suggest that tax exemption is but the 'foot in the door' or the 'nose of the camel in the tent' leading to an established church."

May 4, 1970 - Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York (283KB)  

Dean M. Kelley, ThM, former Counselor on Religious Liberty to the National Council of Churches, wrote in his 1977 book Why Churches Should Not Pay Taxes:
"...[T]ax exemption is not something churches (or any nonprofit voluntary organizations, for that matter) win by 'good' behavior or lose by 'bad' behavior, as 'good' or 'bad' may be defined at will by incumbant officials from day to day. Churches have their essential function to perform, which they do—and have done for decades and centuries—as best they can, and which outsiders, particularly government officials, cannot judge, and—even if they could—do not have the wisdom, means or right to try to improve the churches' performance. Loss of tax exemption will not make poorly functioning churches function better, and the threat of it will only have a 'chilling effect' on those that are not doing too well as it is, so that they will tend to falter and 'lose their nerve' and do even less well.

Tax exemption is not something to be turned on and off like a spigot, but an optimum, constant condition for allowing the religious function to be performed in a 'free market' situation, where would-be practitioners are allowed to 'sink or swim' on the basis of how well they meet the religious needs of adherents—without governmental interference, either to hinder or to 'help' (which is still to hinder). One does not have to be a partisan of one religion or of any to appreciate and wish to maintain this commendable 'hands off' neutrality of government toward religion, which the First Amendment commands, and which tax exemption so excellently epitomizes."

1977 - Dean M. Kelley, ThM 

Scott Tibbs, evangelical conservative blogger, stated in his June 24, 2009 ConservaTibbs.com blog post titled "Should Churches Pay Taxes?":
"I would argue that subjecting churches to property taxes is a bad idea. The excesses of some Christian merchants aside, Churches are not profit-making entities. Many smaller churches struggle to make monthly expenses like salary and mortgage. Subjecting churches to property taxes would be a major burden on many smaller churches already struggling to get by and would therefore be a restriction on religious freedom...

Some have complained that it is 'unconstitutional' to exempt churches (or mosques, synagogues, temples, and so forth) from taxation. It isn't. So long as government does not show favoritism by picking and choosing which religions (or denominations) to exempt and which to tax, there is no 'respecting an establishment of religion' and therefore no Constitutional problem...

Finally, despite the claims of some, exempting churches from taxation is not the same as a subsidy. If I do not take $10 from your wallet, I am not 'giving' you $10 - I am letting you keep what is yours. (Or in the case of churches, what was donated.) If I hand you a $10 bill and you place it in your wallet, that is a subsidy. Church members are already taxes [sic], both on income and property so there is no need to tax the money twice."

June 24, 2009 - Scott Tibbs 

Don Boys, PhD, evangelist and former USA Today columnist, stated in his 1997 article "Should Churches Pay Taxes?," posted on the Cornerstone Communications USA (Common Sense for Today) website:
"When there was discussion about bringing churches under the new Social Security system in the days of President Franklin Roosevelt, he quickly replied, 'But that would be taxing God!' And so it would...

...Churches should not pay taxes because the government does not have the authority to demand it!

Does not the Constitution clearly prohibit the government from making any law restricting religion? Does not the ability to tax actually mean the ability to control – or destroy? I thought most of us believed in the separation of church and state (but not separation of God and state), but if so, how can any government entity presume to tax the church? After all, a 'higher' always taxes a 'lower,' and will any Bible believer maintain that government is over the Church of the Living God? I thought Christ was preeminent over all."

1997 - Don Boys, PhD 

John M. Farley, former Archbishop of New York, wrote in his 1894 article "Why Church Property Should Not Be Taxed," reproduced at Archive.org:
"The people see that church property is really, in the point of use, their property, and that it would be as sensible to tax the New York City Hall and Central Park as to tax the churches... The churches are as free to the public as the city buldings; they have been built for the use of the people, with the people's money; and they are still supported by voluntary offerings. They are kept open to suit the necessity and convenience of the public, and all their services are for the multitude. It may be said in fact that the churches are more truly the property of the people in point of use than even the city offices, for in the churches they are always welcome, and it is not for the comfort and happiness of the clergy that these buildings are erected, but solely for the people, after the first intention of honoring God... To tax property so truly the property of the people is simply an absurdity of the same nature as taxing the public schools because they enjoy the protection of the Federal government...

...Such a taxation is utterly opposed to American principles, contrary to the custom of nations, very distasteful to people that believe in God and in Christ."

1894 - John M. Farley 

Dan Barker, former evangelical minister and Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), stated in his May 9, 2012 New York Times opinion article titled "Government Is Endorsing Religion":
"Tax advantages to churches and religious organizations should be curtailed and brought in line with those granted to secular charitable groups. Whatever public good might stem from some religious activity, it is no greater than that accomplished by secular groups. They should be treated equally.

A tax benefit should be justified by public accountability. Churches should be required to notify the I.R.S. of their intent to claim church status, to pay the same filing fees and submit the onerous annual 990 form, and reporting income and expenses, like all other 501(c)(3) groups. The current law gives unfair advantages to churches, which, unlike other nonprofits, do not have to disclose their financial activities. This lack of governmental oversight and accountability opens the door to scams, crime, con artists and abuse by people working under 'church status' that is much too common... The horrible massacre at Jonestown, Guyana, for example, could not have occurred had the Rev. Jim Jones been held accountable to the government while amassing his armory, drugs, wealth and control over minors..."

May 9, 2012 - Dan Barker 

Jeremy Fejfar, PharmD, Comminity Columnist for the La Crosse Tribune and member of the La Crosse (WI) Area Freethought Society, stated in his Apr. 15, 2012 op-ed titled "Why Are Churches Tax-exempt?" and posted on LaCrosseTribune.com:
"The problem with granting tax-exempt status to religions and churches as a rule, is that now we have put the government in the role of determining what is a religion and what is not. Who’s to say that a gathering in someone’s living room every Sunday to discuss God is not a religious service?

Should this home be exempt from property taxes, as are thousands of churches, temples and mosques across this country? How many members does a group have to have to be considered a tax-exempt religion? More to the point, are these questions that we want our government asking?...

For every house of worship that is exempt from property taxes, taxpayers have to pay more than they would have if a residence or business were on that same piece of land. Do churches not benefit from the same taxpayer-funded benefits that the rest of us enjoy — protection by the police and fire departments, maintenance of roads to and from their places of worship, etc? Why then should they be exempt from these taxes?"

Apr. 15, 2012 - Jeremy Fejfar, PharmD 

Ryan T. Cragun, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, and former University of Tampa students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega, stated in their report titled "How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States," published in the June-July 2012 issue of Free Inquiry magazine:
"While some people may be bothered by the fact that there are pastors who live in multimillion dollar homes, this is old news to most. But here is what should bother you about these expensive homes: You are helping to pay for them! You pay for them indirectly, the same way local, state, and federal governments in the United States subsidize religion—to the tune of about $71 billion every year...

Hypothetically, the leader of a drug cartel could have one of his lieutenants start a church and file for tax-exempt status. Once granted, money from the sale of drugs could then be donated to the religion, which could use the funds to build extravagant buildings (including a 'parsonage'), host extravagant 'services' (a.k.a. parties) for members of the religion, and pay extravagant salaries to its ministers (including the leader of the cartel). Drug money could be laundered through the church’s bank accounts with little risk of being caught by authorities. If drug cartels and the Mafia aren’t already doing this, we’d be surprised...

...[A]s the perceived 'benefit' to society of religions becomes increasingly irrelevant as more and more Americans cease to utilize their 'services' by disaffiliating, it will also be increasingly unfair for a large percentage of nonreligious Americans (almost 40 percent in some states) to subsidize the recreational activities of others. These subsidies should be phased out."

June-July 2012 - Stephanie Yeager 
Desmond Vega 
Ryan T. Cragun, PhD 

William O. Douglas, LLB, former US Supreme Court Associate Justice, wrote in his dissenting opinion in Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, decided May 4, 1970:
"If history be our guide, then tax exemption of church property in this country is indeed highly suspect, as it arose in the early days when the church was an agency of the state...

Churches, like newspapers also enjoying First Amendment rights, have no constitutional immunity from all taxes...

If believers are entitled to public financial support, so are nonbelievers. A believer and nonbeliever under the present law are treated differently because of the articles of their faith. Believers are doubtless comforted that the cause of religion is being fostered by this legislation. Yet one of the mandates of the First Amendment is to promote a viable, pluralistic society and to keep government neutral, not only between sects, but also between believers and nonbelievers. The present involvement of government in religion may seem de minimis [insignificant]. But it is, I fear, a long step down the Establishment path...

I conclude that this tax exemption is unconstitutional."

May 4, 1970 - William O. Douglas, LLB 

Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States, stated during his Seventh Annual Message to Congress on Dec. 7, 1875, reproduced in A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Volume VII: Ulysses S. Grant, edited by James D. Richardson:
"I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land before the close of the nineteenth century. It is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property.

In 1850, I believe, the church property of the United States which paid no tax, municipal or State, amounted to about $83,000,000. In 1860 the amount had doubled; in 1875 it is about $1,000,000,000. By 1900, without check, it is safe to say this property will reach a sum exceeding $3,000,000,000. So vast a sum, receiving all the protection and benefits of Government without bearing its proportion of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes. In a growing country, where real estate enhances so rapidly with time, as in the United States, there is scarcely a limit to the wealth that may be acquired by corporations, religious or otherwise, if allowed to retain real estate without taxation. The contemplation of so vast a property as here alluded to, without taxation, may lead to sequestration without constitutional authority and through blood.

I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation, exempting only the last resting place of the dead and possibly, with proper restrictions, church edifices."

Dec. 7, 1875 - Ulysses S. Grant 

James A. Garfield, 20th President of the United States, was quoted in the US Congressional Record of 1874, available on the US Department of State's InfoUSA website, as stating:
"The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community."

1874 - James A. Garfield 

Joseph McCabe, atheist writer and former Franciscan monk, wrote in his 1930 essay "Why I Believe in Fair Taxation of Church Property," published in 1930 in Little Blue Book No. 1502, edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, available at the Secular Web (Infidels.org):
"The exemption of churches from taxation is one of the worst anachronisms. It meant originally that the church was a state within the state, having its own law and deciding itself when and in what measure it might, in times of pressure; contribute to the public treasury. When this arrogant claim was disallowed, church property still evaded taxation on the ground that it served a high public purpose, like, charitable or educational institutions, which were then entirely voluntary, and it ought therefore, to have at least this subsidy of an exemption from taxation. There was no need in those days to inquire very closely into the soundness of the public service. Practically the whole community used the churches and, if a tax were imposed on them, the community would have to pay it. The church was exempt on pretty much the same grounds as the civic hall. It was like transferring your money from one pocket to another. Now considerably less than half the adults of any Community use the churches, and the last argument for exempting them from taxation is quite discredited...

Church property in the United States is said to be worth about four billion dollars, and it is increasing rapidly in value... The anachronism is that city property of immense value is used by only about a tenth of the taxpayers of this city, yet the nine-tenths lazily subsidize it by remitting taxation..."

1930 - Joseph McCabe 

Lawrence Sager, LLB, the Alice Jane Drysdale Sheffield Regents Chair at the University of Texas School of Law, and Christopher L. Eisgruber, JD, Provost of Princeton University, wrote in their May 9, 2012 NYTimes.com article titled "Don’t Play Favorites":
"[I]f we selectively confer benefits on religion... we are doing as much harm to equality as if we disfavor some or all religions. If churches receive exemptions from taxes or zoning laws along with other socially desirable enterprises – say schools and community centers – that’s fine. But it is unjust to make churches the sole beneficiaries of such exemptions."

May 9, 2012 - Lawrence Sager, LLB 
Christopher L. Eisgruber, JD 

Richard Dawkins, DPhil, DSc, former Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford and author of The God Delusion, stated in his July 6, 2012 Washington Post op-ed titled "Don’t Need God to Be Good … or Generous":
"[C]hurches [being] automatically classified as charities for taxation purposes is a disgrace. Nobody denies that some churches do charitable work. But that doesn’t mean that any organization should automatically qualify for tax-free status simply by calling itself a church. Each church organization separately should make the case that it does charitable work, just as anybody else has to when seeking tax exemption."

July 6, 2012 - Richard Dawkins, DPhil, DSc 

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