Disclaimer: This isn’t intended to be some formal argument, so this may not even make sense, but I tried to make it coherent. Really it’s a rant, as opposed to a well developed essay and a way for me to think about the current state of our society. It also helps me understand why its important that I (and the rest of us) are active in the political spectra in how we use our power to vote.
I just want to take a moment to rant about the influence that religion has been gaining over the past years and especially the past months in our government. This NYT room for debate topic really brings to question what kind of role does religion and churches truly play in our society? In law they get special tax breaks that other secular non-profits do not benefit from. Yet they are able to effect so much influence on how their members vote and spend that same tax free money on trying to spread their beliefs and prevent certain legislation from being passed (or helping negative legislation pass i.e. NC and the anti-gay marriage bill). When I think about this issue a few things come to mind:
- What exactly was the logic in providing special tax breaks to religious groups/churches?
- What defines a group as “non-profit” and “charitable?”
- At what point does an organization lose its right to be considered a non-profit/charitable organization?
- Should these tax exemptions be made available to everyone or completely abolished?
I won’t necessarily argue that churches and religious groups provide some sort of “service” or benefit to society. In this sense you can call them a charitable organization because they don’t expect payment for their services. In the same sense, they are non-profit as in they don’t receive payment for their services. So I guess I could understand why and how certain tax breaks could be applied to churches, but then why can’t they be applied to other organizations in the same vein? Isn’t it unfair for secular groups to not be eligible for those tax breaks, simply because they are not part of the category that churches fall under?
So what exactly defines a non-profit? Technically you could look at it in two ways, similar to what I had mentioned just now. 1) A nonprofit could simply be defined as an organization that retains no net income for its members (i.e. uses funds to better the organization) or 2) A nonprofit can be defined as an organization the provides a certain service free of charge, or rather without expecting to be paid, that is of benefit to the public. If we follow definition #1, which is how the law defines a non-profit organization, churches naturally would fall under as a non-profit charitable organization. Churches use the money they make from donations and other sources to improve church facilities, fund activities etc… Under definition #2 is where the water muddies a bit. Obviously this is not the legal requirement (which is where some of the issue arises from), but I don’t really see the services that churches provide as a benefit to the greater whole of the public. I’m not seeing any benefits from it, nor are other non-affiliated individuals. So why should the church be considered in such a different light as a typical non-profit?
One of the individuals arguing for religious exemptions in law said the following:
“Religious exemptions are an essential part of our democracy. They provide breathing space for religious individuals and institutions to exist. They benefit all Americans, regardless of religion or lack thereof.”
The first thing I don’t get is how the exemptions are needed for those groups to exist? Secular groups exist perfectly fine without these tax exemptions. Religious freedom and the right to your beliefs is more than possible without tax breaks. If we were to go along the same lines, I could argue that a non-profit for reducing environmental impact is able to provide breathing space (no pun intended) for clean cities and communities to exist. Or how about a non-profit to bring education to disadvantaged communities provides the meas for smarter and more driven individuals to exist and grow. Wouldn’t that be the same thing?
This brings me to third issue I mentioned. When does an organization lose its right to be called a non-profit/charitable organization. Or rather, the more specific issue is, what exactly makes a church special compared to secular groups? Let’s assume that there is some inherent benefit to society for churches. That same argument can be made for MANY other groups, such as environmental non-profits and civil rights groups. In this essence, churches and those groups are the same, so shouldn’t they be subject to the the same tax rules? Some people might argue that secular groups lobby the government to advance their agendas. Okay. I won’t argue that. But have they been seeing the news? There are ministers and religious groups who publicly endorse politicians and try to advance their own agendas as well. Again, shouldn’t the same rules apply if both groups have a benefit for the greater of society and try to advance their own agendas? So why are churches so special? Because they are religious? That’s simply an irrelevant reason.
The other supporter of religious exemptions said the following:
“Religious exemptions allow progressive churches to survive and thrive, and to shape our nation’s political culture.”
That’s exactly the thing that they SHOULDN’T be able to do. Wasn’t the original intention of the Founders to separate church and state, in ways that they are isolated, but at the same time can keep certain tabs on the other? I’m in no way arguing that religion is bad. I personally am not religious, but I can see the appeal and benefit that many will see in practicing faith. But being able to force certain legislation or sway the vote by encouraging their members to vote a certain way, doesn’t that destroy the separation that should be present between church and the government? Wouldn’t that make churches THE SAME as secular non-profits?
My final point about the exemptions being made applicable to everyone is sort of a toss up. On the one hand, secular organizations were able to function fine without them, but on the other it would be nice, and in that sense churches could still benefit from those tax exemptions (making both sides happy, I would think).
Honestly, I had no idea that religious groups had such tax exemptions and were treated specially by the government. I think this goes to show that reform is needed across the board in the way government is run and who truly holds the power, because its clearly not politicians, but rather the big corporations and churches and non-profit orgs (on both sides of the spectrum) standing behind them tossing the money.