The Case for Taxing Churches

The Introduction and Table of Contents for my just published anthology taking-up the tax-free status of churches, now available on Kindle.


When Dylann Roof massacred 9-worshippers at a South Carolina church in the summer of 2015, the subsequently-discovered images of him draped in a confederate flag irrevocably linked the flag to the racism that drove him; one could no longer plausibly claim that display of the flag is an expression of respect for southern chivalry; magnolia and honeysuckle; velvet, genteel dusks and mint juleps.

Even so, when at its 2016 annual meeting the Southern Baptists considered a resolution discouraging display of the flag, the flag’s supporters were incensed. In short order the discussion digressed into a discussion of loyalties, and on that subject Southern Baptists on both sides of the discussion were agreed.

Here is the text of some typical tweets:

  • “I am a Christian first and an American second.”

  • “Following Christ will always trump being an American.”

  • “If I ever have to choose between the cross and the American flag, I will choose the cross every time.”

    Well … that’s their right. But what right have they to expect their fellow Americans to subsidize their America Second loyalties?

    So, too, the Followers of Christ, a small Christian denomination headquartered in Oregon. They rely on verses such as James 5:15 to justify denying medical care to their children – and they have a cemetery with lots of little coffins to demonstrate their sincerity.

    Similarly, following the massacre of 49-patrons of a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, there was no shortage of preachers eager to condemn the dead — to complain, even, that some of the victims survived.

    We subsidize all of them, too.

    Religious institutions have for so long enjoyed freedom from taxes that the privileged status of churches and clergy is part of our civic scenery: of course that megachurch can’t be expected to pay for its police and fire protection, for the construction and wear of the roads which service it, or taxes on the desirable property it occupies.

    Why not?

    And who knows that this presumption upon the public purse – now conservatively estimated at more than $70-billion a year, or $220 per year for every man, woman, and child in the United States — was debated even before the adoption of the Constitution, or that Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all firmly opposed to it?

    You will know when you have read this anthology. The tax privileges enjoyed by churches – and synagogues, mosques, temples, seminaries, on and on – are incontestably contrary to the Founders’ intent.

    Set aside for a moment the Constitutional intent, and ask yourself a simple, straightforward question: Why should any American citizen be obliged, against his will, to subsidize beliefs which he considers untrue and an engine of human misery, and which are clearly unrelated to any public purpose?

    I use the word ‘churches’ in the title of this volume, incidentally, because America’s dominant religion is Christianity, and the Christian place of worship is called a church. I mean to include, however, the places of worship and education of all religions, mosques and synagogues and so forth.

    I should add, too, that I reject without qualification the claim that churches (et cetera) provide a community benefit whose value exceeds their cost to the community. If that were so, churches would not so strenuously resist completing and making available for public inspection the IRS-990 form, as all other non-profits are obliged to do.

    They resist because the public accounting expected of Goodwill or The American Red Cross, say, would reveal that the claim is a lie. They resist because it would be difficult to explain why Pastor Steven Furtick lives in the largest privately-owned home in North Carolina. They resist because it would be difficult to explain how the expenditure by Mark Driscoll’s church to purchase enough copies of his book to make him a New York Times best-selling author serves the public interest.

    Similarly, indignant readers should think carefully before belaboring the First Amendment. That amendment protects four freedoms: religious belief, the press, speech, and assembly. If it means that churches are to operate without taxes, it means that newspapers and broadcasters, and stadiums, bars, and reception halls should too.

    Does anybody think the Founders intended that? Of course not. When the First Amendment is used to argue that churches cannot be expected to pay taxes, it is dispositive evidence that the speaker has given the matter no serious thought whatever.

    It is time then, once for all, to end the tax privileges enjoyed by religion and to stop imposing upon American citizens a compulsory duty to support institutions innately opposed to reason, hostile to American ideals, morally responsible for Niagaras of bloodshed, and destructive of national unity.


    Table of Contents

    • Introduction

    • The Selections

    • A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke, 1689

    • Correspondence, Benjamin Franklin to Richard Price, 1780

    • Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, James Madison, 1785

    • The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson, 1786

    • Detached Memoranda, James Madison, 1817

    • On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau, 1849

    • President James A. Garfield, 1874

    • The Utility of Religion, John Stuart Mill, 1874

    • Seventh Annual Message to Congress, Ulysses S. Grant, 1875

    • American Secular Union and Free-Thought Federation, 1876

    • Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1877

    • Free Schools, Robert Ingersoll, 1879

    • Chief Justice Comegys, Robert Ingersoll, 1881

    • An Interview with the Truth-Seeker, Robert Ingersoll, 1885

    • Tax All Church Property, Robert Ingersoll, 1898

    • Exempting the Churches, James F. Morton, 1916

    • The Profits of Religion, Upton Sinclair, 1917

    • Little Blue Book #1502, 1930

    • The Church and Wealth in America, Theodore Dreiser, 1931

    • Research Report: How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States, Ryan Cragun, et. al., 2012