In Good Faith

Question: Since many religions actively receive donations and are worth hundreds of millions of dollars, why are we giving them a tax break?

Dave Gardiner - Buddhist

David Gardiner is an associate professor in the Colorado College Religion Department, specializing in Buddhism and religions of China and Japan, and is co-founder and director of BodhiMind Center.

Not-for-profit organizations are exempt from paying income taxes in order to free up resources for various kinds of work deemed charitable or humanitarian. Ideally, this means that, unlike for-profit corporations, their business models are not motivated by finances but by the benefit they bring to the community. A religious group can apply for nonprofit status through a strict federal process. Any nonprofit organization is susceptible to corruption. Ways to prevent this include expressing concerns through direct communication with the organization’s leaders, urging lawmakers to enforce all regulations and pushing for legislation that continues to preserve integrity. The fact that a religious organization is wealthy is no indication of corruption. They might be doing good work not easily seen. 

Jim Daly - Christian

Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to helping families thrive. He and his wife are raising two boys. Visit focusonthefamily.com.

Your question reflects a popular misunderstanding. Mega-churches “worth hundreds of millions of dollars” are actually in the minority.  Most congregations are small, with 50 to 100 members and pastors who work side jobs to make ends meet. If they had to pay taxes out of the meager contributions they receive, they’d quickly have to close their doors. Also, the church is not in the business of amassing profits and accumulating capital. It stands apart from the secular economy. In a very important sense, it does not belong to this nation or any other nation. It serves as a “Royal Priesthood” (1 Peter 2:9), an intercessor between God and mankind. Tax-exemption recognizes this unique function.  

Ahriana Platten - New Thought - Unity

Dr. Ahriana Platten is founder-executive director of In Good Faith, leads Unity Spiritual Center and speaks around the country on the topics of interfaith and intercultural understanding.

Research shows that over half the churches in our country have 75 or fewer attendees. Average giving is $17 per week. That means half our churches receive donations of $66,300 annually. From that income, they must pay a minister, an administrator, utilities, and their rent or mortgage at minimum. Without tax exemption, many churches would cease to exist. Tax exemption helps support religious freedom and choice. Beyond that, churches use their buildings to provide pastoral counseling, space for things like Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, collecting donations for food banks, providing hours of volunteer time to community service organizations and, in my opinion, building character in people who regularly attend. Without these churches, many people would suffer.

Jeff Scholes - Agnostic

Jeffrey Scholes, Ph.D., is an associate professor of philosophy and the director of the Center for Religious Diversity and Public Life at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.

While some places of worship act more as a for-profit business, the vast majority are nonprofits that fund projects that help their congregants and the wider society. Moreover, taxing churches, synagogues, mosques, etc. would be a practical nightmare. How would the IRS determine when a church is no longer a nonprofit? If this is impossible, then taxing one means taxing all nonprofits, religious or not. Larger institutions could lawyer up when audited, and small ones would be exposed. I understand your frustration over pastors who have private jets. Perhaps regulations on how a nonprofit can spend their resources could prevent some of this but taxing it won’t. 

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