It’s Time for Churches to Pay Taxes

Religious institutions in the U.S. have chosen capitalism over Christ, and we must tax them accordingly.

The Supreme Court ruled in a 1970 decision that property tax exemptions for churches did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, since the purpose of the exemptions were to “neither advance nor inhibit religion.” No one particular church receives special benefit, and the tax exempt status is available to all churches. The Court has ruled that restricting the fiscal relationship between church and state is required to maintain proper separation of the two entities. The Supreme Court has maintained that “restricting the financial relationship” means that churches are generally exempt from taxation.

Has the “Lemon Test” gone sour?

In Establishment Clause cases, such as those involving taxation of churches or government aid to religious organizations, the three-part Lemon Test is used to determine whether or not there is a violation of the Constitution. Using the Lemon Test, the court first examines the proposed aid to the religious entity and ensures it has a clear, secular purpose. Next, the court determines whether the aid would advance or inhibit religion; it should do neither. In the third part of the test, the court examines whether the aid in question would create unnecessary entanglement between church and state.

There is nothing wrong with the Lemon Test; it’s a great way to determine whether or not a violation of the First Amendment has occurred, but there is a problem with application of the test, which is inconsistent at best. Courts don’t even use the first part of the test because they refuse to second guess the legislature’s purpose, and an extremely small amount of programs are found in violation of the second part of the test. That means the third part, the government entanglement prong, is the key (and usually the only) part of the test. The excessive government entanglement test is arbitrary and decisions often come down to the opinions of the judge or justice ruling.

Freedom of, but not from, religion

Although it’s clear that the First Amendment promotes a separation of church and state, some conservative judges and justices rule based on an accommodationist interpretation of the Constitution. Accommodationists believe that the First Amendment was only intended to protect religion from government, not the other way around. They believe it’s fine for the government to promote religion as long as one religion doesn’t receive preferential treatment. Federally observed religious holidays, government aid given to religious schools, the national anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, our currency, which is inscribed with the motto “In God We Trust,” and school prayer are all examples of accommodationism.

While accommodationism may sound good in theory, in practice the majority religion is the most favored. All of the above examples of accommodationism benefit the majority religion, Christianity, the most. Christianity is effectively promoted by the government, but strict separation of church and state means the state must not endorse any one religion, even the majority religion. 

Churches taketh, but do not giveth

Religious organizations across the United States have received at least $7.3 billion in forgivable government loans from the Paycheck Protection Program. The top loan recipients are, of course, of the majority religion. Megachurches with outspoken Trump-supporting pastors have received millions of dollars in loans, and churches tied to sexual abuse and financial scandals also took advantage of the free money.

This is a clear violation of the Lemon Test and of the Establishment Clause. The grants given to churches obviously do not have a clearly secular purpose, so it fails the first part of the test. The handouts advance the interests of the religious organizations that receive them, and I’m not sure how anyone could argue that the aid does not create unnecessary entanglement between church and state. 

“In God We Trust“

Christianity has been in violation of the Constitution of the United States for some time, but not as long as you might expect. There was no mention of a god in the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954, when “one Nation under God” was added to the Pledge, which just so happens to coincide with the height of the Red Scare. America’s collective paranoia of communism also made “In God We Trust” our national motto in 1956. The phrase “In God We Trust” also appears on our currency. These changes are more recent than one might imagine, and this relative recency proves that the state and religion can separately coexist; Christianity does not need to be promoted by the government to remain the most-practiced religion in the country. Neither, does the government’s promotion of Christianity, guarantee that the U.S. will remain a religious country.

Capitalism over Christ

While the government has incorporated elements of religion, Christianity has, perhaps to an even greater degree, adopted principles of capitalism. Churches often toe the line between business and religious organization. Some megachurches wickedly worship capitalism above Christ, raking in millions of dollars a year in untaxed revenue. No matter how much business is in the church, though, they are still treated like a church for tax purposes. The IRS “has long adopted a largely hands-off approach to regulating churches.”

If churches want to continue to claim exemption from taxation, they must be completely financially independent from the government. This means constructing private roads so their members won’t put a strain on public infrastructure driving to church, and not receiving a single penny in aid from the government (certainly not the billions of dollars in taxpayer funds they recently received). Since it is virtually impossible for a religious organization to exist in this country and not use any state resources, churches must pay their fair share in taxes for their use of these resources.

Education is a necessary public good. Everyone that pays taxes financially contributes to our public schools because they exist for the betterment of our society. Currently, everyone that pays taxes also contributes to our religious institutions, whether they are in favor of that religion or not. Would you, if you consider yourself a Christian, want your tax dollars to go to the Church of Satan? Or would you rather choose which religious institution, if any, your money went to?

If you don’t want your money funding religious institutions you aren’t in favor of, you must support taxation of churches. It is a small price to pay for a more complete freedom of religion, and religious institutions will certainly benefit in the long run. If you remove the tax benefits from religion, many businesses masquerading as churches will no longer have a reason to associate with religion. Taking capitalism out of the equation will help to bring back our trust in religious institutions. When we know that an organization has no financial incentive to identify as a church, we can trust that they are acting for the promotion of a cause they believe in instead of existing solely for the tax benefits.

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