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The Unfair Tax Exemption for Politically Active Churches Must End

Throughout American history this country has alienated, disenfranchised, and legally discriminated against many groups of people despite what scholars and historians have called an “immortal declaration,” “perhaps (the) single phrase,” or the “theory of prediction with the greatest continuing importance” of the Revolutionary period. It is likely that when Thomas Jefferson penned “all men are created equal” it was his hope that the young nation would evolve into a country where every citizen was equal, but his hope has never fully been realized.

Over several generations, one group or another had to fight tooth and nail to achieve equal rights in the land where “all men are created equal,” and a new group found the courage to join women, gays, minorities, and the poor in demanding equality and that the U.S. government hold everyone to the same standards and be given the same rights. If the concept of equality is predicated on the idea that everyone is given the same rights, when the federal government gives preferential treatment to a certain group the rest of the population does not have, then the rest of the population is being discriminated against and are not equal.

In 1954, Senator Lyndon B. Johnson granted a “favor” to churches with the “Johnson Amendment” giving religious organizations tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status churches decry as unfair because of the proviso they were “prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” Religious groups say Johnson giving them taxpayer-funded welfare was devastating and an attempt to “eliminate the significant influence the church always had on shaping public policy,” but American Atheists and other secular groups say “We find it (tax-exempt status) discriminatory, so we’re suing. The way that this is set up, we all pay for it. We’re all supporting churches for what they do.”

The president of the American Atheists, David Silverman, elucidated precisely what is supposed to be the basic premise of the U.S. Constitution; “This is about the U.S. government holding everyone to the same standard and giving the same rights to all. No exceptions. We are seeing religions getting preferential treatment by our government, a government that is supposed to serve us and respect us all as equals, and that’s wrong. It’s not what this country is about and it’s unpatriotic.” It is also undemocratic, unconstitutional, and costs American taxpayers more than $82.5 billion annually to “support false doctrines.”

One critic of the decades-old practice said that even if the government gave tens-of-billions to what conservatives claim is the religion America is founded on (Christianity), it is still wrong because giving welfare to churches does not “enhance the soul-saving capacity of its clergy.” The lawsuit comes on the heels of a recent ruling by a U.S. District Court Judge who declared it “unconstitutional” to allow “a minister of the gospel” to avoid paying income tax on a specific portion of their compensation. The judge ruled that “the exemption provides a benefit to religious persons and no one else, even though doing so is not necessary to alleviate a special burden on religious exercise.” Judge Barbara B. Crabb said there was nothing to “identify any reason why a requirement on ministers to pay taxes on a housing allowance is more burdensome for them than for the many millions of others who must pay taxes on income used for housing expenses.” She continued that “Some might view a rule against preferential treatment as exhibiting hostility toward religion, but equality should never be mistaken for hostility. It is important to remember that the establishment clause protects the religious and nonreligious alike.” The aspect of the 501(c)(3) tax-exempt designation the ruling addressed is allowing preachers to use their untaxed income to purchase a home, and then deduct interest paid on the mortgage and property taxes in what clergy affectionately call “double dipping.”

As a lawyer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation accurately opined “The Court has simply recognized the reality that a tax free housing allowance available only to ministers is a significant benefit from the government unconstitutionally provided on the basis of religion.” However, the “preacher preference” is a pittance ($2.3 billion from 2002-2007) compared to the tens-of-billions churches bilk the taxpayers out of every year, and it is high time the practice comes to an abrupt end, and with extreme prejudice. The District Court ruling and lawsuit demanding equal treatment under the law are first steps to bring equal rights to all Americans. Churches say they provide a valuable spiritual service to the community, but their “soul-saving” is irrelevant; especially considering that the millions of Americans who do provide tangible goods and services to the community have to pay their fair share of taxes that are funneled directly to churches by way of tax-exemption on earnings as well as the obscene practice of not paying property taxes on their substantial land holdings and buildings while claiming “non-profit” status. Churches, especially Christian churches, are irate about their “tax-exempt” welfare status they claim “shackles” them from speaking out, funding, or organizing opposition to other Americans’ rights the government declares “legal, even if it is immoral (contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, homosexuality).”

There is a simple solution that will satisfy the Christian churches and the secular groups suing for equality, and it is simply stripping the tax-exempt status from all churches. With the nation, and communities, struggling to fund social programs, infrastructure improvements, create jobs, and reduce the dreaded deficit, the $82.5 billion annually would be substantial revenue. It would also end the unconstitutional practice of forcing American taxpayers to hand over their hard-earned tax dollars to churches rabid to restrict their equal rights under the Constitution. The atheist and secular groups’ lawsuit, coupled with the District Court ruling is not about religion, it is about fairness under the law, democracy, and adhering to the U.S. Constitution Christians claim was handed down directly from god.

There is no rational excuse or reason to continue forcing American taxpayers to subsidize any religion, but especially the Christian religion and its advocacy groups that are taking money from the Koch brothers to restrict women’s equal rights and actively campaigning to discriminate against gays. Christian churches already wield inordinate power and influence over the American people, even other Christians, and it is in great part because the government gives taxpayer money in the form of welfare for their despicably undemocratic, unconstitutional, and immoral practice of forcing their asinine bible mythos on the population.

Churches can be disabused of their complaint they cannot force their religion down Americans’ throats, and atheists and secularists can finally achieve the constitutionally-guaranteed equality they deserve if they prevail in their lawsuit and put a stop to the ridiculous practice of giving churches what no other American is afforded; tax-exempt status based on whatever belief they adhere to.

H/T newcivilrightsmovement


Audio engineer and instructor for SAE. Writes op/ed commentary supporting Secular Humanist causes, and exposing suppression of women, the poor, and minorities. An advocate for freedom of religion and particularly, freedom of NO religion. Born in the South, raised in the Mid-West and California for a well-rounded view of America; it doesn't look good. Former minister, lifelong musician, Mahayana Zen-Buddhist.

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