I saw this meme posted on Facebook recently:
Why should the churches be taxed? As a punishment to make them pay their fair share? Though the issue of churches and taxes is most commonly associated with the paying or not paying of property taxes, the popular sentiment on Facebook around this and other images I’ve seen shows an interest in punishing the church simply for being the church. It could be that those who Like this poster don’t know that churches are exempt from certain taxes, and may not know that churches are voluntary associations funded by voluntary contributions from individuals who also pay a portion of their income to the government in taxes. The latter is a non-voluntary contribution.
A common topic thrown around in the media lately is the need to raise taxes on the wealthy to pay for the ballooning scope of the federal government. The big red balloon needs more hot air, so why not target other groups that seem to have a good thing going? The cathedral in the image above certainly gives that impression, but must everything successful be taxed just for existing? The government certainly has no jurisdiction over the finances of the church, no matter which denomination or congregation. The same people who call for ever-increasing taxes might be the same that constantly complain of a lack of separation of church and state, on the grounds that they don’t want to be imposed upon by the church. Apparently imposing on the church is acceptable.
Churches vary significantly in their beliefs, liturgy and involvement in the community, but generally church members voluntarily contribute money as they wish to the local church affiliation of their choosing because that is where they want their money to go. Churches do help a lot of people outside the church, both domestically and internationally, but the church is not required to meet some sort of entitlement quota. That group of individuals can direct their money to whatever cause they choose and do so as a voluntary benefit to the community at various scales.
One condition for maintaining a tax exempt status is that the church must not forward a political agenda. Charitable organizations (religious or not) are said to provide a benefit to society and serve public purposes. If these organizations are taxed, they would not be able to provide those benefits and services due to the excessive financial burden. Government taxation itself can provide similar benefits and services, and does compete directly with charitable organizations. This can lead to churches falling behind in competition to provide services because voluntary contribution surely goes down as taxation goes up. With a tax, the government would be hitting the church on two sides.
Individuals financially support each other every day, in one way or another. And whether we choose to or not. Taxation is a transfer in the method by which benefits are provided to those in need. Whereas an individual might wish to choose to support a certain mission organization that digs wells in Africa, he may instead decide that because he had to pay a certain amount of taxes this year, that hardship gives him little choice over where his money goes as he decides instead to send the African well money to pay his rent. The tax money goes to fund whatever Congress thinks is a worthy recipient (sometimes this individual agrees with Congress, but often he does not). The result is that we do not control the fruits of our own labor and may be unable to help a group that has a special meaning to us because our money is first going to a cause we personally find inappropriate.
In addition to the right of the individual to direct his finances towards the cause of his choice, another strong reason not to tax the church is that America has a separation of church and state. We do not have an official religion (i.e. government religion). A tax on the church prohibits the free exercise of religion. You cannot have separation and taxation. There is a tension between government regulation and free speech from the pulpit, as a church leader who gives certain political opinions could cause his church to lose their tax exempt status. This can be seen by some as a violation of First Amendment rights, but if the government should stay out of the church, then the church should stay out of the government.
“Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21 (ESV).
Individuals should give charitably with a personal conscience rather than by forced taxation.