January 13, 2018

Changed My Mind About the Religious Tax Exemption

Change direction

When I write about topics such as reason, freethought, critical thinking, being open-minded, and/or the importance of acknowledging that we could be wrong about anything, I am often asked something along the lines of the following question:
Can you give a specific example of something relevant to atheism or secularism where you've changed your mind?
Absolutely. For years, decades even, I believed that it was preferable to maintain the tax exemption religious organizations enjoyed as long as they steered clear of politics. I thought this seemed like a fair and reasonably successful arrangement. I have changed my mind about this, and I now believe that religious organizations should be taxed in the same way that non-religious organizations are taxed.

Why the change? For starters, it does not seem to me that religious organizations have in fact steered clear of politics. Moreover, there has been little if any willingness to enforce this by revoking the tax-exempt status of those who do not. Thus, we have been upholding our end of the deal by providing them with tax breaks while they have not been upholding theirs and have faced no consequences for failing to do so.

I have also come to view taxation as being more about contributing to the public good rather than as some sort of state interference in religious practices. By paying taxes, religious organizations would be improving society in a tangible way. While I believe that some tax-exempt religious organizations are already contributing to society in valuable ways, many others are not. And more to the point, it is clear that such contributions are not a precondition for maintaining tax-exempt status.

Briefly consider the Church of Scientology, one of many tax-exempt religious organizations. They seem to contribute little to the public good but instead horde vast wealth. Unlike most religious organizations, they are run primarily as a business. Allowing them to operate this way while enjoying tax-exempt status seems to provide them with an unfair competitive advantage over other businesses. It seems clear that the Church of Scientology should not be exempt from paying taxes. I suspect that if we move from Scientology to other religious organizations, we might find ourselves making similar points about many of them.

I continue to support the separation of church and state. I am not eager to see church meddling in state affairs or the state meddling in church affairs. And yet, the way I think about taxation in this context has changed over time. I believe it is time for religious organizations to contribute to society by paying taxes.