Garnett on Tax Exemptions for Religious Institutions

Rick Garnett has a very good short piece over at the Washington Post on a newly controversial issue: tax exemptions for religious institutions. It’s one in a series of short essays on the subject. Here is the beginning:

Instead of asking whether churches and religious organizations deserve to be tax-exempt, we should ask why governments should be able to tax them at all. Taxation, after all, involves interference by the state, and in a free society such interference needs to be justified.

The power to tax involves the power to destroy, as Daniel Webster argued in the Supreme Court nearly two centuries ago. While our government does have the right to levy taxes, it’s only because “We the People” have authorized it to do so — in order to raise the funds needed to provide for the common good. But should we give our government this “power to destroy” over churches and religious institutions?

Rick contends that the answer to this question is ‘no.’ For a contrary view, contending that because Americans are “abandon[ing] organized religion,” it is time to tax churches, see this effort in the same series by David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association. Mr. Niose’s essay contains a few errors, such as the suggestion that a “non-Christian” homeless person would be denied care by a Christian charity on religious grounds. But it does accurately reflect the increasingly popular view that tax exemption for religious institutions is an “extraordinary handout.”

For some reflections of my own on the historical premises of tax exemption for religious organizations, and the breakdown of those premises (as reflected, in part, in Niose’s piece), see this post.

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