Tax Breaks, Religion, and Fairness

Featured image used with permission of Flickr user 401(K) 2013.

Featured image used with permission of Flickr user 401(K) 2013.

There has been an interesting challenge by secularists in Minnesota that successfully sought to eliminate the tax-exemption on housing allowances enjoyed by professionally religious persons (clergy men and women, priests, pastors, etc.). At first glance, this may seem like a petty attack on religious people by those who do not share their religious inclinations, but I think that it is rather more important than that. The issue here is not one of financial gain – though it appears that this limited tax benefit is worth some $700 million each year - but rather one of fairness. After all, why is it right that these people should receive tax breaks that the vast majority of people do not enjoy, based solely on their particular field of employment?

A Brief Recap

The judge in this case had this to say in the ruling:

I conclude that § 107(2) violates the establishment clause under the holding in Texas Monthly, Inc. v. Bullock, 489 U.S. 1(1989), because the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.

In other words, this tax break only helps religious persons without helping those people to overcome some undue obstacle. Losing the tax-exemption on their housing allowance equates to a roughly 5-10% reduction in pay for most clergymen and women. I certainly would not be keen on a reduction in my take home pay, so I sympathize with these people insofar as no one appreciates having less money at their disposal (even though I do feel that many Christians should be less attached to their money here in America. I seem to remember Jesus having some rather pointed things to say about that). It is important to note that this is not burdening religious professionals with a tax that others do not also have to pay. This is the revocation of a special tax exemption they alone had, and there is a key difference here between a pay-cut and the loss of a tax-exemption I do not feel should have been granted in the first place.

To those who object to this ruling, let me be clear: secularists in this fight are leveling the playing field here, not upending it. Secularists are not asking for religion to be penalized via the tax code. We are merely asking that religion not be given a helping hand not enjoyed by the rest of the general population. I am taxed on most everything my employer provides, whether it be my salary, my retirement contributions, the employee discount I enjoy, my company vehicle, or any other financial benefit. I understand that paying those taxes is part of supporting the government and the services it provides, even if I myself do not take advantage of most of them.

Even more troubling, the current state of affairs means that the non-religious out there are effectively subsidizing religious activities. I find this to be a completely inappropriate state of affairs. It does not help the case of the religious that there is verbiage written in the founding document of the government of the United States that specifically precludes the possibility that government should seek to endorse or establish a religion – any ­religion – and I contend that the tax-exemptions granted to religious institutions do help with the spread of religion. There is a reason that so many organizations are fighting bitterly to keep their current tax-free status, and it is because money talks - loudly.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

If the estimates found over at the (rather excellent) Friendly Atheist’s blog have been conveyed truthfully – and I have my suspicions that they have been – then we, as a nation, are losing roughly $71,000,000,000 a year to religious institutions. That would be 71 billion for those who got lost in all of those zeroes. At a time of supposed fiscal tightening, when we are pulling money out of every corner of discretionary spending (i.e., not Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security), how can we justify this massive source of revenue?

Some might argue that this is justified by the charitable donations and services provided by the thousands of churches that dot this country, but it seems the numbers simply do not support that conclusion. It seems safe to say that most churches give only 5-10% of their income to charitable causes, though the numbers get messier when you take into account medical and social services that bigger organizations, such as the Catholic Church, provide. Things get even messier still when you realize that the hospitals run by the Church receive much of their money in the form of Medicare/Medicaid payments, which means the taxpayer is on the hook in this case as well! The simple fact is that almost all of the money that goes into a church stays within that church, supporting and helping only those people within the organization.

I’m all for helping people, and I am committed to helping organizations that seek to better the world we live in, but religion in this country enjoys a cozy relationship with the government that it absolutely should not. This type of religious tax exemption leaves the taxpayer on the hook for tens of billions annually, with little to show for it in the way of overt charitable work. Most money that enters a church never leaves it, even though the public at large has subsidized that church handsomely. There is nothing unfair in making sure these institutions do not enjoy privileges not claimed by other, secular organizations with similar missions. However good the intentions - and I do not doubt the truly wonderful intentions of most religious people - the case for allowing religious tax-exemptions is fatally flawed and unsupported.

The recent case in Minnesota is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope that we as a nation can continue to ensure that religious institutions are free to pursue their goals – I only insist that they do not use my money to do so.

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