Abolish State-Supported Superstition by Dan Hilbert (Jan/Feb 1994)

It took a devastating fire at Windsor Castle (coupled with a few scandals of sorts and a public outcry) to compel Queen Elizabeth II to begin paying taxes like every other limey.

Hmm. No more welfare for the royal family. Tsk. Tsk. Imagine, if you will, those Brits allowing special privileges to the royal family in the first place.

On the other hand though, here in America, there is an organization that has been getting away with special privileges for years. Don’t you think it’s time we gave these freeloaders the “royal boot” also? Congress has been talking about raising taxes and cutting back on social programs, but we don’t need to raise taxes. We have an untapped source of revenue available now, a dividend.

After the end of the cold war, we dreamed of a peace time dividend, but we didn’t find any dividend there. We thought the Reagan trickle-down theory of economics would percolate down, but we didn’t find any dividend there, either. In fact, we didn’t find a dividend anywhere in the last 12 years; only soaring bankruptcies and debt-financed spending, making the U.S. the largest debtor nation in the world.

The dividend is right in front of our noses. And it doesn’t have to involve “new taxes,” just a fairer distribution of taxes. This plan would wipe out the budget deficit, slash the national debt, end the recession, finance a national health insurance program, raise our standard of living, and most important to college students, it would increase funding for higher education.

This dividend is available in a “treasure chest” and the “booty” is ours if we wise-up and abolish special tax privileges to an institution which has been plundering money from us for 200 years. Like the British did, we also must make a stand for equal taxation.

The “treasure chest” I am referring to is secreted in the vast sums of untaxed property and incomes of religious institutions and their leaders. According to real estate records, religious organizations own between 20-25% of the property in America.

This is not limited to just churches and their adjunct facilities, but it encompasses far-flung enterprises which enjoy an unfair advantage over other mortals. If the “good news” is truly good, then churches and religious institutions should be able to stand on their own two feet by now, just like the royal family.

Such is not the case, however, as churches pay no taxes. Indeed, once a business has convinced the IRS that it is a church, nothing else is required. What a “sweetheart” deal between church and state–no accountability at all.

Historically, this tax exemption was allowed by the IRS with the understanding that religious institutions would provide social services and devote itself to the public good.

However, the results of imposing religion on society at the taxpayers’ expense has proven to be a devastating experience for many and has not solved any social problems, but instead, created new ones.

The humanitarian help done by churches is merely secular atonement for the countless mental and physical abuses inflicted in the name of religion. It would be better left up to professional people (thereby creating jobs for people who would be paying taxes) to administer these social programs.

Still the church gets a free ride, and the Supreme Court, not wanting to enrage believers, rules in favor of religious tax exemptions. However, the legal opinion is that the tax-exempt status of churches is illegal. It could also be argued that we are merely subsidizing superstition and myth. In any case, we have simply permitted tradition (not unlike that of the British treatment of royalty) to circumvent constitutional law.

Some religious leaders accept the principle of fair taxation of the church. The late Bishop, Fulton J. Sheen stated: “The right of the poor to have a decent house [should] have priority over our right to erect a tax-exempt structure . . .”

And Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, former leader of the United Presbyterian Churches, announced: “When one remembers that churches pay no inheritance tax, (churches never die) . . . and [are] exempt from the 52% corporate income tax, it is not unreasonable to expect, under prudent management, that churches ought to be able to control the whole economy of the nation within the predictable future.”

I’m not the first, nor will I be the last to unfurl the fair-taxation flag. As early as 1875, a noted citizen of the United States once said: “I would like to call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land . . . it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property.”

The speaker wasn’t a radical liberal, but the president of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. It was in response to a 900-foot petition with 35,000 signatures, stating that: “We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation.”

Will our nation “so conceived and so dedicated to the proposition that all [people] are created equal,” continue to permit an unequal, unfair tax to remain in effect? This violates the sensibilities of others by requiring everyone to finance a religious activity that only some of the people desire. Does an almighty God need to be protected by a state legislature? Let religion stand alone by its own merits without the intercession of government.

This is excerpted from a column originally appearing in Foundation member Dan Hilbert’s college newspaper, Rapp Street Journal.

Freedom From Religion Foundation