Letter to the Editor

Churches pay taxes? Since when?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

I have been a church member all my life and have enjoyed the comfortable setting in the various churches I have been attending and supporting. The personal message, the member interaction, community outreaches and charitable activities have been reasons for membership. I have never been a member of a mega church, but rather local community churches affiliated with various synods.

In recent years, our various county, state and federal governments have struggled to maintain services they have traditionally provided. Politicians steadfastly refuse to raise taxes for fear that they will not be reelected. There are many loopholes that could be addressed, but I would like to address just one of them.

U.S. churches were granted an official federal tax exemption by the Tariff Act of 1894. All 50 states plus the District of Colombia also exempt churches from property taxes. Donations to churches are also exempt. In 1954 the Johnson amendment banned churches from interfering in political campaigns. In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld this ruling. Yet, voter's guides and endorsements are commonplace from religious organizations with tax exempt status.

To name just two churches with huge business and property ownership, the Mormon Church operates shopping centers, a real estate company, cattle ranches, radio stations and other businesses. The Catholic Church is the third-largest land owner around the globe. The treasures in the Vatican Museum and Vatican Library are so vast and valuable, their value cannot even be estimated.

In addition, mega churches have palatial edifices as worship centers. Their ministers live in elegant mansions and own their own jet planes to get around. Local neighborhood churches are situated on public streets, enjoy fire and police protection, use city sewer and water lines, their ministers even get special tax treatment on their homes.

Has the time come for this to change? Several studies have been done to determine the annual cost of this special treatment to subsidize religion. This is what they found: Between federal and state income taxes, property and investment tax, parsonage and faith based initiative subsidies a total of $71 billion per year is lost.

Is it time for U.S. churches to pay their fair share to keep our communities and our country what we want it to be? 
An alternative has surfaced in Germany. Every citizen that is a member of an organized church will be assessed annually a flat 4 percent tax on total income. This past year 400,000 Germans renounced their faith to avoid the tax.

Robert Sneitzer

Spirit Lake