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Nov 27 2013

One law for all

The report takes a little too much glee at poking at the JREF, but it does seem fair: Broward County is cracking down on tax exemptions for non-profits, including the JREF and churches. If they have undeveloped or unused property, property that isn’t being used for a charitable function, they are being told to pay taxes on it.

They lead with the example of the JREF, which has an unused million dollar building up for sale, and they seem to have ambushed Randi about it (I don’t think he’s much involved with the business of the JREF, so he was the wrong person to talk to). They owe about $23,000. At the end of the video, they finally mention that the JREF has paid up about $21,000.

What I find most promising though, is that they also mention going after churches — just on their unused property so far. But they make much of the fact that these exemptions are costing the people money, and that they are going to be much more thorough in auditing tax exempt institutions, which is a good thing.

One can only hope that they eventually get around to rethinking the charitable purpose of sitting around in pews getting hectored by a priest, and start yanking tax exemptions from churches wholesale.

17 comments

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  1. 1
    richardelguru

    Surely they should tax churches just like any other form of entertainment.

  2. 2
    MrFancyPants

    In my more naive past, I would have raised an objection and said “but wait, the tax exemption for churches is good, because with it comes the ban on preaching politics from the pulpit.” What I realize now, and didn’t then, is that that ban is rarely (if ever?) enforced. Over and over I’ve heard priests tell their congregations in no uncertain terms what the “right way” to vote is, with language so barely masked as to be laughable.

    Tax them. Tax them for everything they’re worth.

  3. 3
    tbp1

    I see no reason why donations to churches per se should be given tax write-offs. As others have pointed out, the day-to-day operations of a church are more like a club of some sort, rather than a charity, and with some exceptions, relatively little money donated to churches goes to actual charitable activities.

    It would take a little effort, but it shouldn’t be excessively burdensome for churches to set up separate entities for their bona fide charities. Lots of churches do that already, I think. Donations to those could remain tax-exempt, but donations to pay the minister, keep up the church building, and such would not.

    Of course, I know it won’t happen in my lifetime, but a fella can dream, can’t he?

  4. 4
    grumpyoldfart

    When Broward County starts checking on church property they will be amazed at out how difficult it is to track down the real owner. Not even a forensic auditor will be able to find a way through a religious organization’s creative bookkeeping methods.

  5. 5
    Alex

    Struggling over tax-exemption? What noobs. Over here, the churches get paid taxes!

    By the way, what exactly does the JREF for example have to fulfil in order to get tax exempt status on some of their stuff, that churches would not be able to claim?

  6. 6
    holytape

    The video was great example of bad editing and journalism. The report wasn’t poking at the RJEF, he was inferring that the RJEF and James Randi himself were actively committing fraud, (Magically making the property tax disappear, implying that they study the paranormal without mentioning that they only do so to debunk it, no mention that that building was their headquarters, no mention when the building was vacated.) Just another example of how journalism is in a sad, sad state.

    But don’t you know property taxes make Jesus angry.

  7. 7
    David Wilford

    Broward County may have an incentive to prevent such non-use of property, given how it could be abused to bank land for future development. We are talking about Florida, after all, land of the spree and home of the knave… ;^)

  8. 8
    steve1

    If they can not track down the owners of the land they will put a lein on the property.

  9. 9
    cag

    MrFancyPants

    Tax them. Tax them for everything they’re worth.

    But churches are worthless. And useless.

  10. 10
    maddog1129

    @ Mr Fancy Pants #2

    The “with tax exemption comes the ban on preaching politics” concept was not, to my understanding, meant to reach preaching of political ideas or a particularly religious way of viewing political issues. I think that has always been permissible. There are, after all, religious ideologies and moralities which are more compatible with certain sides of political issues than with others. I thought the ban on preaching from the pulpit reached only direct campaigning for particular *candidates*.

    OTOH, again in my understanding, I thought the religious tax exemption was justified on the theory that freedom of exercise of religion, as well as free speech and freedom of association, as the fundamental freedoms, should not be allowed to be unduly burdened or interfered with by the government. If you can tax something a little bit, you can tax it a lot, and sometimes taxes or penalties are imposed to encourage compliance with particular points of view … at what point does a tax or tax substitute become a governmental interference with the liberty of conscience?

    I’m prepared to be persuaded that the justification isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but on its face it isn’t implausible.

  11. 11
    maddog1129

    I should add that I am also ready to be educated that my understanding of the actual justification is in fact mistaken.

  12. 12
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re 10:

    Good point. As I recall, taxes were supposed to be a disincentive. I.E. to encourage people to use less gasoline, raise the taxes on gasoline, etc., etc. Ipso facto: taxing contributions to churches would discourage people from contributing to them, that would imply that the government was exercising control over religion, violating the Constitution. That totally dismisses the view that NOT taxing contributions encourages donations and thus also infringes on the “free exercise” of religion. Gosh, one can argue either way < …brain about to explode… >
    Regardless, I agree with PZ. Why are religions exempt? One law for ALL Isn’t that what “the rule of law” all about? Isn’t that the most FAIR?

  13. 13
    joehoffman

    The Constitutional problem is actually trickier than that. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”, but the IRS had to make exactly such a thing, defining valid religious establishments in order to exempt them from taxes.

  14. 14
    Nathair

    As I recall, taxes were supposed to be a disincentive.

    Not all taxes are “sin taxes” or are you suggesting that property taxes are intended to encourage people not to own property and income tax is designed to encourage people not to earn money?

  15. 15
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re Nathair @14:

    Not all taxes are “sin taxes” or are you suggesting that property taxes are intended to encourage people not to own property and income tax is designed to encourage people not to earn money?

    Good questions, I spoke too simplistically. I did not mean that all taxation was intended to be a “sin tax”. I guess I just overinterpreted the result of taxation, (e.g. the gasoline tax, alcohol tax, cigarette tax, etc.) The case of property tax you asked, actually supports my argument. Why else would the Feds allow one to deduct their property taxes from their income taxes? To compensate for the disincentive imposed by the State. The Fed tax also encourages marriage by reducing the taxes on married couples as compared to a pair of singles.
    [that is really why the Fed is against Ghey Marriage; they see a decrease in tax revenue as a result. "The Gheys must not marry or the economy will collapse!" (or so they think)]
    As for ‘income tax’ discouraging earning money: the Repubgelicals turn that around 180deg. They preach, “It is your DUTY to pay taxes, if you don’t you’re a moocher, stealing my tax money from me for your own good, not mine. Make more money, pay more taxes, everyone happy.” I won’t even mention < nudge, nudge > all the loopholes in the tax code that only the most wealthy (the 1%) can use to reduce their taxes to less than zero. So whether “intentional” or not, the effect of taxation is a disincentive and the tax-makers are well aware of it. But then the opposite is also true: if tax is a DISincentive than a tax deduction is an INcentive and is still a “law respecting the exercise of religion”. A Constitutional no-no.

  16. 16
    chimera

    One Law to rule them all,
    One Law to find them,
    One Law to bring them all,
    And in the ________ bind them.

  17. 17
    culuriel

    Hi Maddog and Stevem, you are both right. The Supreme Court literally stated in 1970′s Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York that tax exemptions exist so that the government will not create any disincentive to practice religion. However, Joe Hoffman is right, the IRS determines what will be a religion, making the federal government the de facto determiner of what is actually a religion in this country, which is kind of Establishment-y. For a really good take on this in modern times, see Lawrence Wright’s “Going Clear”, where he breaks down how the Church of Scientology got tax-exempt status.

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