The best reason I can think of for making religious institutions tax exempt, is to irritate Joe. My friend makes some important points about religious groups benefiting from the services of the community (infrastructure, safety etc.). Joe raises the question of fairness and whether religions provide a service that mitigates the lack of tax revenue. My answer is: Often ‘yes’ and sometimes ‘no’.
The reality is that government provides tax exemptions for all sorts of purposes. Here in Massachusetts, the great industrial powerhouse General Electric is being granted huge tax exemptions facilitating their move from Connecticut to Boston. The Governor, mayor and legislators have granted this sweetheart deal believing that the loss of tax revenue (used for infrastructure and schools) will be offset by other benefits.
Historically our nation has seen the benefit of providing what Thomas Jefferson refereed to as ‘ high wall of separation ‘ between church and state. In practice this has meant not taxing houses of worship. While not specifically mandated in the First Amendment:’Prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech’ The Founding Fathers and those who followed believed that a tax-exempt status for religious institutions and other non-profits was worth it, offset by the benefits such institutions provide.
One can argue whether religious institutions and other non-profits (i.e. Red Cross, United Way, Boy and Girl Scouts etc.) deserve their tax exempt status. I’d argue for the most part, yes. Consider that many of the hospitals, universities (including historic Black colleges ), direct services to the poor and vulnerable were founded by and continue to be led by religious institutions. These institutions for the most part do not limit their services to those who share their religious views but for the benefit of the common good.
Is the loss of tax income offset by the benefits to the wider community? Yes.
Are some religious institutions self-serving? Do some televangelist hucksters hide behind the 1st Amendment for their own benefit? Yes. But I think they are the exception rather than the rule.
Like it or not there is in practice, a ‘high wall of separation’ between church and state. This wall of separation creates a creative tension between religious institutions and the state. It is in the best interest of both to use the influence and the benefits they provide wisely. The purpose of the 1st Amendment is that the church does not impose its will on the state, nor does the state impose its will on the church (or Temple or Mosque).
Joe, my atheist buddy quotes Jesus in his response: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Of course, that’s the rub.
What is it that belongs to Caesar/government and what are those things that are of God? Jesus, knew the provocative power of a good question.