The mess over tax exemptions for churches

I have written before how the tax exemption given to churches creates opportunities for all manner of abuse. The practice of granting churches tax exemptions is long-standing, dating to before American independence but its constitutionality was not tested until 1970 when the US Supreme Court ruled that while it would not be permissible for the state to actually give churches money, granting tax exemptions was a passive form of state support that passed muster because the state had an interest in promoting organizations that improved the general welfare and the Establishment Clause discouraged entangling religion with the state, and having the state tax churches would lead to more entanglement than exempting them from taxation.

Whatever one may think of the decision or the reasoning, there is no doubt that churches jealously guard this privilege even as they abuse it, and try to fight any and all attempts to pay the kinds of taxes and fees that all other organizations must pay.

Take for example what happened in the Illinois city of East St. Louis. The city council had proposed that all businesses to pay a $100 ‘annual registration fee’ to cover the cost of building and fire safety inspections. But church pastors packed city hall to protest, saying that this fee was indistinguishable from a tax and that they should not have to pay it, citing the Establishment Clause in support.

Church-state separation advocates say by demanding payment of churches for city services, and levying fines for nonpayment (and potentially putting a church in jeopardy of shutting its doors), a municipality would be entangling itself in church affairs.

The city council finally passed a compromise proposed by the mayor that said that churches don’t have to pay the fee but that they would then have to hire their own people to certify that the buildings met the fire and safety requirements, and that would cost around $500.

What these churches want are the full benefits of the protective services offered by the city without paying for anything.

As Sarah Barringer Gordon, a constitutional law professor and professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, said the idea of tax exemptions for religious institutions has evolved over the last two centuries “into something more and more generous.”

If there is one thing that unites organizations across the spectrum of all religions and from fundamentalist to liberal, it is that they should not pay any taxes in any form for the common good. Who says that religions cannot come together?

Churches absolutely love the Establishment Clause when it comes to not paying taxes. When it keeps religion out of schools? Not so much.