Tax churches into oblivion, atheist says

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |

LOS ANGELES (Christian Examiner) – Outspoken atheist/agnostic Bill Maher says Christianity and other religions should be taxed, not simply because he believes it's fair but also because he thinks it would contribute to their demise.

"There are 300,000 religious congregations in this country that pay no tax – no federal, state or local. No income, sales or property tax. And they own $600 billion in property," Maher said during a diatribe April 15 on HBO's "Real Time With Bill Maher."

"Almost a quarter of us are being forced to subsidize a myth that we're not buying into. Why am I subsidizing their Sunday morning hobby? They don't subsidize mine," he said, as the television picture showed a shot of him near a marijuana bong.

Maher then implied that religion is similar to cigarettes and other vices the government taxes.

"If we levy taxes – sin taxes, they call them – on things that are bad to get them to stop doing them, why, in heaven's name, don't we tax religion?" he asked. "A sexist, homophobic magic act that's been used to justify everything from genital mutilation to genocide. You want to raise the tax on tobacco so kids don't get cancer, OK. But let's put one on Sunday School so they don't get stupid."

Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that defends religious liberty in courts nationwide, argues in an essay on its website that there are multiple reasons churches should be exempt from taxes, including the great benefit they provide society.

"Churches minister to the poor and needy in the community, provide numerous social services for the downtrodden among us, and reach out to the 'least of these' in thousands of different ways," ADF says. "The social benefit theory justifies tax exemption for churches as a kind of bargain – churches provide needed services, so they are entitled to tax exemption."

Then there are "intangible" benefits, ADF says – "things like reduced crime rates resulting from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens who contribute to the well-being of the community."

In 2010 a University of Pennsylvania professor co-led a study of 12 churches in Philadelphia and found they provided $50,577,098 in annual economic benefits.

"In fact, churches provide more social services and intangible benefits to the community than they would ever pay in taxes," ADF argues. "It makes no sense to tax churches because the tax dollars taken from the church reduce the amount of benefits it can provide to the community. In a very real sense, taxing churches harms society."

But there also is a "constitutional reason" why churches should not be taxed, ADF says.

"Churches were exempt from the very first time the tax code was passed at the federal level, and have remained exempt in every iteration of the tax code ever since. Every state in America also exempts churches from property taxes," ADF says. "That makes sense when you stop and think about it. As the Supreme Court said in a very early case, 'The power to tax involves the power to control.' Taxation is, in essence, a very strong assertion of control by a sovereign over its subjects. Exempting churches is a way to ensure that the state cannot control churches."