Subject: Religious tax exemptions Date: 29 Mar 91 20:37:02 GMT (Pardon the several-day tim

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From: Subject: Religious tax exemptions Date: 29 Mar 91 20:37:02 GMT (Pardon the several-day time lag. I only read news every week or so.) A previous poster asked about the effect of tax exemption of religious organizations. Ironically, the Dec 1990 issue of the freethinker periodical "Freethought Today" had an article on just this topic. (I would like to think that some of you are interested enough in these articles that you are actually subscribing to F.T., just so I don't feel guilty about violating copyright when I reproduce these little gems.) The article's author is Mayer Rangell, whose biography reads as follows: Mayer Rangell, a Freethought reader from New York, is a graduate of the U of Chicago School of Social Work. He has worked as a social worker and business executive. His social activism has included many years in anti-drug abuse activities. His frequent essays and letters on drug abuse, racism, nuclear war, and civil rights have appeared in the New York Times, Times-Herald Recorder, Mexico City News, and elsewhere. "The Big Religious Give-Away", by Mayer Rangell "I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land ... it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property ..." The speaker was not a wild-eyed atheist reformer, but the President of the United States, in his annual message to Congress. The year was 1875; the President, Ulysses S. Grant; the immediate stimulus a 900-foot petition presented to Congress, containing 35,000 signatures, stating, "We demand that churches and other ecclesiastical property shall be no longer exempt from taxation." "In 1850," the President continued, "the church properties in the United States which paid no taxes, municipal or state, amounted to about $83 million. In 1860, the amount had doubled; in 1875 it is about $1 billion. By 1900, without check, it is safe to say that this property will reach a sum exceeding $3 billion ... So vast a sum, receiving all the protections and benefits of government without bearing its portions of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes ... I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation." [1] As it turned out, the President did not exaggerate. By 1971, experts calculated that the amount of real and personal property owned by US churches had grown far beyond President Grant's "vast sum" of $3 billion. It is now $110 billion! In New York City alone, tax exemptions for religious properties, clergy and parsonages had reached over $750 million, according to the City of New York Annual Report of the Tax Commission for the fiscal year 1968-69. The Tax Commission's latest report, for the fiscal year 1981-82 (a spokesperson at the Commission could not explain why this "annual report" has not been issued since then) listed religious tax-exempt properties at over $1 billion. And by March, 1989, the New York State Board of Equalization and Assessment listed religious exemptions -> in New York City alone <- at a staggering $3,022,475,000. Thus, the fearful expectations of President Grant that religious exemptions would reach $3 billion for the nation as a whole by the year 1900 came true in a single city less than a century later. This rapid accumulation of colossal wealth by church organizations and its implications for the community at large did not escape thoughtful clergy. Doctor Eugene Carson Blake, leader of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States and general secretary of the World Council of Churches, said, "When one remembers that churches pay no inheritance tax (churches do not die), that churches may own and operate businesses and be exempt from the 52% corporate income tax, and that some property used for church purposese (which in some states are generously construed) is tax exempt, it is not unreasonable to prophesy that with reasonably prudent management the churches ought to be able to control the whole economy of the nation within the predictable future." [2] The Most Reverend Fulton J. Sheen, shortly after assuming the post of Roman Catholic Bishop of Rochester, New York, stated, "There never should be a new church built here that costs more than, say, $1 million. If a diocese insists on spending more for a church, it ought to pay something like a 20% tax for mission. The right of the poor to have a decent house enjoys priority over our right to erect a tax-exempt structure which exceeds the minimum". [3] If it was not evident at its inception, the legal tax- exemption soon revealed the ease with which abuses could grow under the clause "for religious purposes," whose broad interpretation could, and did, give rise to many opportunities for lucrative abuse. In a study published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 1971 ("The Free List," by Alfred Balk), one example among many is cited: "In one action ... the Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford purchased 121.5 acres of vacant land in New Britain, Conn., for $23,500. The land then was classified as a cemetery and exempted; a body was buried there; and in 1966, when the land had appreciated to $607,000, the body was removed and the 'cemetery' was sold. According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the exemption saved the church $200,000 in taxes in the years it owned the land." The church's "savings," of course, added an additional burden of $200,000 to the general taxpayer. It is of historic and philosophic interest that the "acquiescence" of the taxpayer noted by President Grant has lasted, without effective challenge for more than 100 years. It seems to point to an essential religiosity in our people. Religion, like politics, cannot be discussed without raised voices often emitting more heat than light. Most citizens have been prone to look acquiescently on the special tax favors enjoyed by religious institutions. Those who have the audacity to raise the question as a significant issue in the realm of public policy are looked upon as party spoilers. Who but a quibbler would want to question the religious about their (God-given?) exemptions? And yet there is ample justification for re-examining any area where tax revenue might be justly and equitably increased, when the federal government is struggling under the weight of the largest budget deficit in history; when local governments all over the country strain to the breaking point to meet human needs with shrinking and inadequate funds, when in New York City, with violence and crime almost out of control, the Mayor cannot find the money to put more police officers on the streets (he is struggling for 1,000 more cops at a cost of $80 million, when the need is clearly for at least 5,000, according to the New York Times and the Police Commissioner); when more cells are needed for a prison system that is almost unmanageable; when sensitive probation efforts are hamstrung; when thousands of drug addicts languish on waiting lists, unable to gain admission to overcrowded and underfunded treatment programs; when the homeless are without shelter and the poor without affordable housing. Under these circumstances how can we not look with a more critical eye on the millions of dollars of tax forgiveness given year after year to religious institutions? How can we countenance this give-away of public money while crying human needs go unmet? Should the public interest be denied while the private interests of religious groups are served? What is the justice of forcing atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and others who follow the private dictates of their own conscience in matters of theology to pay for the practice, and the ornate trappings, or organized religion? (It is obvious, of course, that the narrowing of the tax base by exemptions forces a compensatory, involuntary tax increase for those property owners who are not tax-exempt.) This has nothing to do with religious freedom. True religious freedom, in fact, would be better served if believers carried their own weight and if religionists and nonreligionists shared equally in bearing public burdens. Let organized religion pay its own way, according to the tastes of its members, no special favors asked or granted, for a true ambience of free choice for all. That would be true freedom of religion in a fair and unbiased democracy. References ---------- [1] Quoted in Alfred Balk, "The Free List (Property Without Taxes)", Russell Sage Foundation, 1971. [2] Ibid. [3] Saint Patrick's Cathedral, located in prime New York City real estate, has a current (1990) Assessed Valuation of $45 million. Wholly exempt, this single church property represents an annual tax give-away of about $4 million by New York City taxpayers.


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