Tax The Church Referendum (Jan/Feb 1996)

A ballot initiative forcing churches to pay property taxes is expected to appear on the 1996 Colorado ballot, as a result of a drive led by John Patrick Michael Murphy and other associates. Murphy is a member of the Foundation.

His announcement that he and a cosponsor, Luther Bridges of Aurora, Colorado, have amassed more than enough signatures to place the initiative on ballot made headlines throughout Colorado in December.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s office confirmed that state law requires 54,242 signatures of registered voters in order to put a referendum on the ballot. Murphy expected to have more than 80,000 by the January 18 deadline.

If passed by voters, the initiative would make Colorado the first state to assess churches property taxes.

In an article by Virginia Culver, “Property tax proposal irks churches,” appearing in the Dec. 4 Denver Post, clergy called the proposal an “outrage.”

Murphy, a Colorado Springs attorney who hosts a weekly radio talkshow, “Murphy’s Law,” told Culver: “This is not a crackpot thing. I’m very serious about this.”

It is time that churches pay their fair share of taxes to save an additional $70 million annually for Colorado taxpayers, he said, thereby reducing the amount of property taxes businesses and homeowners now pay. The amendment would stipulate that money saved by placing nonprofits and churches on the state tax rolls be used to reduce taxes for state residents.

Under his proposal, “community duty charities” would not pay taxes. Churches or other nonprofits which house orphans, the disabled, the homeless, the elderly or prisoners would be exempted, as would schools.

But other churches, temples, synagogues, hospitals, Catholic Charities, United Way and every other charity would pay property taxes, including parsonages or rectories owned by churches.

“Churches are voluntary, and there’s no reason we should have to pay for the Moose Lodge tax, for instance,” Murphy said.

Pat Read, executive director of the Colorado Association of Nonprofit Organizations, told the Denver Post: “We have sent out an alert to all 900 of our member organizations.”

She contends that 21% of Colorado’s nonprofits spent $2.1 billion in 1994, and that 83% of that was direct aid to the needy, warning that such programs would be cut if charities had to pay taxes.

The Gazette Telegraph in Colorado Springs (Dec. 9, 1995) reported that in their region, 350 churches and 500 nonprofit groups–including Focus on the Family–would be required to pay property taxes. The city’s largest nonprofit group, the U.S. Olympic committee, with an annual budget of $109 million, told the newspaper it would stay put even if the initiative passed. More than 70 religious groups and companies are now based in Colorado Springs, according to the New York Times (Jan. 14, 1995). The Times quoted Janet Brazill, also a Foundation member from Colorado Springs, objecting to subsidizing conservative groups with whom she disagrees:

“I also support religious liberty but I would rather put my money toward things I believe in.”

Murphy told the Gazette his biggest gripe is that nonprofit groups use services they do not pay for: police, fire and library.

“And who says they don’t owe a duty, such as any other normal citizen, for the education of children? The least they should do is pay their real estate tax.”

Murphy is one of three founders of Coloradans for Fair Property Taxation, who are personally paying a company $1 for every signature gathered, with 150 volunteers circulating petitions.

Freedom From Religion Foundation