It is common knowledge in the United States that churches are recipients of a highly-controversial tax-exempt status each year, but what many don’t know is the scope of how this affects communities across the country.
In fact, over 25 percent of nearly every major city across the United States is made up of tax-exempt property – and some cities have up to 50 percent of their property taken up by tax-exempt institutions, the vast majority of which being churches.
For the Greater Good?
At first glance, a tax-exempt status for non-profit organizations sounds very fair; institutions that operate on donations and volunteer work should rightfully be allowed to forgo paying any taxes, as their income is used to help the needy and fund programs that aim to make positive change (think: St. Jude’s or Mercy Medical Angels). Churches are exempt from taxes under the assumption that they will use the money they are saving in order to help their community – which does not happen, in many cases.
The question then becomes, exactly how much money are the churches saving each year as a result of their special treatment? According to the University of Tampa’s most recent findings, churches are keeping roughly $71 billion dollars from the economy by not being properly taxed. To put this in perspective, $71 billion dollars is roughly what the United States spends on Food Stamp benefits each year (the number is closer to $75 billion as of 2015’s reports). Interestingly enough, many of those who stand against government assistance programs also stand for tax exempt churches, creating an interesting moral paradox – individuals do not wish to pay more in taxes to help their fellow man, but they do not wish for big, high-income organizations like mega-churches to pay taxes. Logically speaking, churches should have no opposition to paying taxes if the money was strictly allocated to helping the needy – the entire reason they are not currently being taxed. Thinking about the implications of these paradoxes is enough to make anyone question their sanity, and it’s time that it come to an end.
The Misconception of Religious Freedom
Those living in the United States are very aware of the privilege that is bestowed upon the religious, and many argue that religious freedom does not exist in the very same country that claims to have the most civil liberties. In fact, one can argue that a separation of church and state does not exist in the United States whatsoever, as any group of people that do not worship the Christian god are persecuted and made to feel unappreciated or inferior.
Having trouble believing that religious privilege exists in America? Let’s take a look at Republican Presidential Candidate Frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz: one of the biggest blocks in the foundation of Trump’s campaign is his willingness and desire to deport and profile Muslims and the non-religious, showing clear favoritism to Judeo-Christian faiths. As if this wasn’t enough to show that religious privilege exists in the United States, Ted Cruz has been credited with saying that “An atheist isn’t fit to be President,” one of the most thoughtless and bigoted statements of this generation.
Taking common statements such as those discussed above in conjunction with the many battles that have been lost in an attempt to separate church and state, the issue of tax-exempt churches becomes more important than ever. While it’s common belief that most churches are small, community properties that work to serve others, the reality is that most of the $71 billion that is not being taxed comes from mega-churches alone, and small churches have little impact on that number in comparison.
Mega-Churches: The Most Successful Businesses in the United States?
What are mega-churches? Think about some of the most famous Judeo-Christian leaders in the world today: names like Kenny Copeland, Joel Osteen, and Joyce Meyer likely come to mind. For brevity’s sake, let’s take a look only at Kenny Copeland’s church and earnings – but keep in mind that these numbers roughly apply to all of the richest pastors in the United States. Kenneth Copeland has been credited with a net worth of $760 million dollars, and he has claimed to be a billionaire on a number of occasions. He owns a private airstrip, a 1,500-acre church campus, a $6 million dollar church-owned mansion, and a $17.5 million dollar private jet.
Take a moment to think about how these numbers add up. According to today’s current tax brackets, Copeland would have paid roughly $296,400,000 in taxes since he began to accumulate the funds (there are no numbers with regard to what he makes yearly, so this number is a rough estimate of how it would total over time, in accordance with today’s tax brackets. Assuming Copeland makes over $400,000 each year and pays 39.6 percent in taxes). Multiply this by the many mega-churches in America, and it’s easy to see the numbers add up quickly.
It’s clear that most of this money is not going to helping the needy, it’s being filed directly into the pockets of those who are benefitted by this system. Rather than owning mansions and private jets, it seems only right that churches be required to use the funds they collect in order to benefit the needy, not themselves. When pastors are making more than most business owners (who are paying taxes), there is a problem, and it can be done by taxing them as any other profit business. When an institution makes hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue that cannot be linked to helping a cause for need, they can no longer maintain a non-profit status, and should be taxed as such.
Realistically, the issue has little to do with numbers, logic, or helping those in need. Churches are exempt from taxation because there is no separation between church and state in the U.S. Some argue that the tax exempt status of churches allows them to operate without worrying about government interference, but the reality is that regulation is in order when their irresponsibility begins to affect the greater good. Children are starving on the streets, but because million-dollar pastors need to buy a third home, they are not getting the help they need.
It’s time to stop putting religious preference first, and start focusing on the greater good. Do not allow institutions to steal from the people of the United States, only to line their own pockets as a result. This does not have to apply to all churches – in fact, those making less than a certain limit should maintain their exempt status for as long as they can show that the money they receive is going to help their community. When this can no longer be done, it’s only right that profiting churches pay taxes like any other for-profit organization in the United States.
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