We know churches get tax exemptions, but how much money does that actually come out to?
University of Tampa professor Ryan T. Cragun along with students Stephanie Yeager and Desmond Vega ran some calculations and figured out a number:
While some people may be bothered by the fact that there are pastors who live in multimillion dollar homes, this is old news to most. But here is what should bother you about these expensive homes: You are helping to pay for them! You pay for them indirectly, the same way local, state, and federal governments in the United States subsidize religion — to the tune of about $71 billion every year.
So… chump change.
Their article (with a defense of how they calculated the amount) appears in the June/July 2012 issue of Free Inquiry.
“The issue of religious tax preferment is especially relevant now because the number of Americans living outside any religious tradition continues to grow,” said Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry’s editor. “That underscores the unfairness of taxing all Americans to subsidize religious institutions that only some Americans utilize.”
The researchers already know what they’ll get criticized for:
… before we get into our calculations, we think it best to address a criticism that is likely to be raised about this article. By suggesting that these groups should pay taxes, we are likely to be criticized by those who think that religions are largely charitable institutions engaged in beneficial service or charitable work and should therefore be exempt from taxes.
Cue reporter Kimberly Winston‘s article in which she interviews a critic of this finding:
… Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said that Americans have made a democratic decision that religious institutions are good for our communities — believers and atheists alike.
“Whether it is the Quakers opposing slavery, Reverend King arguing for equality, or a Catholic soup kitchen feeding and sheltering all in need,” Rienzi said, “our history is full of examples confirming the great public benefit of our religious diversity.”
Right… because church leaders never use the pulpit to oppose civil rights for gay Americans, or speak out against affordable/accessible health-care for women, or use the extra money to buy themselves a larger house because Jesus wants them to be prosperous…
The researchers also ran a few other calculations:
States bypass an estimated $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes.
Capital gains tax exemptions for religious institutions may be as much as $41 million a year.
U.S. clergy may claim as much as $1.2 billion in tax exemptions annually via the parsonage allowance.
Given the current political scene, none of this is going to change anytime soon. Religious groups have far too much power in Washington and they’re not about to ask the government to remove their special privileges. But we can keep the pressure on.
Even if these calculations are proven to be off, the principle isn’t going to change: Religion is a business, churches get tax breaks they don’t really deserve, and we’d all be better off if they paid their fair share.