The National Atheist Party, as stated in its Tax Reform Platform, seeks to “level the playing field and halt the widening gap between the rich and poor in the U.S.” One strategy for achieving this goal is to enforce the regulations placed on churches, which are automatically granted non-profit status and to demand that they “be as transparent to review and audit as any other business.” While we at the National Atheist Party are not demanding that they be automatically stripped of their non-profit status, but that the status be questioned and regulated to ensure churches are held to the same standard as all other non-profit organizations
Churches were officially granted 501c3 tax exempt status by Lyndon B. Johnson with the intention to silence them politically. This type of tax exempt status specifies that if a church speaks out against something legal under U.S. law, it jeopardizes its 501c3 status. This requirement has clearly been pushed aside and ignored however, as can be demonstrated on issues such as homosexuality and abortion. Thanks to certain loopholes in the tax codes, churches have gotten away with political interference for decades. One such loophole identifies members of the church as subsidies of the church. Furthermore, the church it claims no responsibility for politicians who use their power and influence to fulfill a religious agenda. Consequently, the Liberty Counsel reports that only one church has been challenged and has had its 501c3 status revoked, since the time that tax exemption law was implemented. The courts allowed them to remain tax exempt despite the violation.
The problem with the tax exempt status given to churches is not that it is given, but that it is given without scrutiny. Churches do not need to apply for this status; it is given to them automatically. While other non-profit organizations are subject to IRS audit to ensure that they are participating in charitable activities, and must file an annual 990 statement itemizing how their donated money was spent, The IRS automatically waives this for all churches, and assumes that they are ALL doing what is expected of them. If everything ran on the honor system our government would fall apart.
It is simply wrong to ignore the rules and regulations that accompany privilege, particularly since there are multiple ways in which this scrutiny-free process can be abused. Just a few examples are cited from taxthechurches.org; “In Hardenburgh, New York several years ago, 235 of the 239 property owners in that town were granted religious tax exemption because the properties of the owners were made branches of the mail-order Universal Life Church.” Without requiring proper documentation, we are allowing unscrupulous people and organizations to enjoy the same tax-exempt freedom as a more respectable organizations, such as the ACLU. In Wisconsin, “at least $4.2 billion in tax-exempt religious property now exists in that state alone”. Furthermore, it is easy to see that the amount of church related property not being taxed is enormous and there is currently no practical system in place to assure that they are using this tax free status for the reason it was granted.
Our country is in an economic downturn. People are protesting corporations and companies which amass needless wealth while most struggle on exponentially less. Yet no one is questioning the growing UNTAXED wealth of churches and their employees. Again citing taxthechurches.org, “…A 1986 estimate showed religious income in that year of approximately $100 billion, or about five times the income of the five largest corporations in the U.S. All tax free.” It is not just the organization that is given unwarranted special treatment; it is also those in their service. A minister can deduct, from his income taxes, such things as rent, utilities, property taxes (if he owns his own home), and according to the IRS website “any other expenses related to providing a home”, which is in essence vague.
Our system works on a careful balance, much like the scales of justice. When someone receives tax exemption, whether deserved or not, money must come from somewhere else to compensate and keep the scale balanced. As a result of what some would equate to tax evasion, our economy is suffering and our government refuses to address this imbalance by doing what the laws naturally obligate them to do. Churches should not be given unquestioned special status, especially when it so drastically affects the American economy.