When you challenge religious privilege in America, it doesn’t take long for the defenders of the faith to take up arms. My recent Washington Post piece, arguing that it’s time to consider making churches pay their fair share of taxes, has resulted in just such a backlash.
Writing in The Federalist, co-authors Paul R. DeHart and Kevin Stuart object vociferously to the idea that taxpayers might expect churches to help pay for police and fire protection, street plowing, and other municipal services. In a baffling chain of illogic, they argue that calling the free ride that churches enjoy a “subsidy” is akin to saying the government subsidizes each of us because it doesn’t tax us at 100 percent. (I’m not making that up: see the second paragraph of their article here.)
Throughout their piece, DeHart and Stuart carefully avoid the issue of fairness—of churches owning real estate in a community and enjoying municipal services that are paid for by everyone else. Even televangelists living in multi-million-dollar estates on the taxpayer dime, taking advantage of vulnerable viewers and indefensible statutory tax exemptions, go unmentioned by the two scholars.
Instead of addressing such real-world issues, DeHart and Stuart spout high-minded rhetoric that is peppered with alarmism (the old “the power to tax is the power to destroy” quote, for example) and void of any meaningful connection to the facts and issues at hand. We hear of freedom of conscience, free exercise, and even church-state separation, and are told that requiring churches to pay property taxes would be an attack on all of these principles.
But of course, it wouldn’t.
Nobody is suggesting a special tax that would apply only to churches—such a targeted tax could potentially be unfair and hostile. Instead, by simply treating churches like everyone else, we’d be doing nothing more than eliminating special treatment (more specifically, removing an unfair exemption that allows churches to avoid their responsibility as members of the community). If real estate owners are expected to pay taxes, then when a church owns real estate it must pay the tax. This is hardly “tyranny” as our conservative tag team suggests.
Seeing that any argument based on fairness and sensibility would lead to a conclusion against religious privilege, DeHart and Stuart instead make a grandiose argument based on sovereignty—that is, they claim that religion is so darn special that government does not even have the authority to issue a tax bill to a church. Bursting with audacity that could only come from religious conservatives, this is a claim that churches actually operate outside the sovereignty of the government.
To support this argument DeHart and Stuart quote language from James Madison, which would be impressive except that the wording cited lacks even remote relevance. In fact, in the passage cited, Madison was arguing against a requirement that tax dollars be used to support Christian teachers—in other words, he was opposing government support for religion. This, according to our two writers from The Federalist, is proof that Madison not only wanted government to subsidize religion through tax exemptions, but that Madison would have considered any opposing position constitutionally abhorrent. (How I wish I could take a page from Woody Allen by pulling Madison into the conversation to say, “I heard what you are saying! You know nothing of my work!”)
Of course, the idea that government has no sovereignty over religious doctrine is perfectly understandable, for we don’t want legislators meddling in matters of theology; but DeHart and Stuart argue that virtually any exercise of authority over a religious institution, aside from that which prevents injustice to others, is beyond the state’s sovereignty. (Even if we accept this notion, haven’t the authors considered that making a community cover a church’s share of the tax burden is, in fact, an injustice?) The simple, real-world truth is that churches are part of society just like every other institution, and they submit to routine governmental authority all the time—from registering their motor vehicles to getting building permits—and there is no basis for claiming they are independently sovereign to the point that they can thumb their noses at the tax collector.
Though guised as constitutional principle, what DeHart and Stuart are arguing would be a radical departure from the pragmatic tradition of American law and public policy. They want much more than tax exemptions for churches: they seek a unique status of immunity that would allow churches to be unanswerable to government in virtually all circumstances. (It will come as no surprise to learn that DeHart also authored a piece called “Huckabee Understands the Constitution Like Those Who Wrote It.”)
As I argue in my original article, the business of religion can be expected to change as Americans increasingly identify as nonreligious. With such a demographic shift, the justifications—moral, legal, or philosophical—for religious tax exemptions and other special privileges will no doubt seem as outdated as the notion of revelation-based religion itself.
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