Should Christian Churches be Tax Exempt?

by Professor Jack

Recently, a reader of my local newspaper The Bend Bulletin posted an “In My View” column arguing that churches should be subject to property taxes. Since this is a perennial argument of the political Left I thought the column warranted a rebuttal. Many Christians are partly or totally ignorant of this issue and its importance. What follows is what I wrote.

If I understand Ms. Dupree correctly, she says that the long-standing custom of exempting Christian churches from property taxes has outlived its usefulness because those churches no longer help the homeless. Therefore, their assets should be taxed so that the proceeds could be put in a “general fund” that would then be used to “address” the homeless problem. Churches to Ms. Dupree are plush but empty extravagances that effectively embezzle monies that would otherwise eliminate the homeless problem.

Ms. Dupree indicts all churches for greed, for persecution of the homeless, and for offering nothing of value to society now that those churches no longer aid the homeless. ”Millions of people,” she writes, “now sit in plush church buildings once a week that sit empty the rest of the week while the number of homeless people in this county is increasing.”

Before turning to her charges against American churches, let’s take a brief look at the origin of the tax exempt status to churches.

One of the traditional rationales for granting tax exempt status to churches (and to synagogues, museums, madrassas, foundations, charitable organizations, Elks and Rotary Clubs, and to countless other non-profit organizations) was that they added something of value to society that was much greater than anything that might be gained from taxing them. This has been called the “social benefit theory,” among other names. It is not specific to America, nor is it anything very new. Our founding fathers may not have enshrined social benefit theory per se in our Constitution, but it was a part of their everyday worldview. They took it for granted.

Well, what about those “greedy” churches that so distress Ms. Dupree?.

First of all, to tax many churches would be to effectively close them down. The vast majority of churches are poor, small and hardly the plush and decadent shrines Ms. Dupree says they are. Most pastors make between $30,000 and $70,000 per year. Their properties, if they could be sold at all to pay taxes, would be worth very little. Many churches do not even own the facilities they worship in. Furthermore, the tax structure is in reality nothing like the “general fund” she mentions. If taxed, most profits from church properties would be spent on government agencies and used for purposes that have little to do with helping the homeless. Property taxes go for police, schools, fixing highways and other municipal essentials. The idea that all the proceeds that might accrue from taxing churches would end up rectifying the homeless problem is ludicrous.

Then there is the irony inherent in her reasoning. In many cities and towns across America, the only homeless shelters that exist are funded and operated by churches or groups of churches. In Redmond, OR where I live, the homeless have a haven from winter weather precisely because Ms. Dupree’s selfish Christians give some of their money to make it possible.

Furthermore, churches have benevolent funds to help the poor, food pantries for those in hardship, and serve meals to the elderly and indigent. They provide counseling and recovery services to aid the confused, distraught and marginalized. Preaching and teaching from pulpits and in Sunday School classes probably impacts more lives for good than all social programs combined. In short, few churches I know resemble the one-hour-a-week caricature that Ms. Dupree adduces.

It is equally ironic that it is the American Left that was instrumental in de-institutionalizing the mentally retarded and similarly impaired population that makes up a large portion of the homeless. This is a neglected story that represents a disgraceful blot on the record of the political Left. That these political actors now insist that those of us who had little to do with creating this problem become liable for it is a pattern that has become all too familiar to us.

Perhaps Ms. Dupree and those who think as she does should visit a church sometime. They would learn that the common people who worship there are far more generous in supporting social programs than is often realized. Indeed, according to Arthur C. Brooks in his book Who Really Cares?, conservative Christians give much more than liberals, and not simply to their own churches.

One can’t help but suspect that those who insist that churches pay property taxes aren’t really so concerned with the homeless after all. Perhaps they have some other agenda in mind.