pastoral guidance

Does your church ban gay marriage? Then it should start paying taxes.

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It’s difficult to see how the nationwide legalization of gay marriage could have any kind of significant negative repercussions for anybody who’s not gay. Difficult – but not impossible. Because now that the US government formally recognizes marriage equality as a fundamental right, it really shouldn’t skew the tax code so as to give millions of dollars in tax breaks to groups which remain steadfastly bigoted on the subject.

I’m talking, of course, about churches.

For all that the US Constitution mandates the separation of church and state, the two do overlap in quite a few areas. (Just look at your currency, with its slogan of “In God We Trust”.) One of those areas is taxation: the US government subsidizes churches to the tune of many billions of dollars per year by giving them tax-exempt status. One conservative estimate put the sum at $71 billion, but the fact is that no one really knows what the number is.

It’s important to note that the tax exemption for churches and other religious organizations is not embedded in the Constitution. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, but that’s free as in love, not free as in beer. Taxation is a purely secular affair, and by default it applies to everybody equally, whether they’re a religious institution or not. It would be unconstitutional to single out religious institutions to make them pay more tax than anybody else, but the government has every right to stop giving them special tax-free privileges. (One example: the Mormon church owns a theme park in Oahu which pays no federal taxes. That’s even after a Hawaii court found it to be “not for charitable purposes”, and therefore subject to local property taxes.)

It’s abundantly clear that religious institutions have no right to tax exemption. Most famously, in 1983, Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status when it continued to ban interracial dating. Which prompted this exchange with Donald Verrilli, the solicitor general, during oral argument in the gay-marriage case at the Supreme Court:

It’s going to be an issue because it should be an issue. America’s highest court has now ruled that marriage is a “fundamental right”. We have decided, correctly, as a nation, that when we say that “all men are created equal,” included in that is the right to marriage, no matter what your sexual orientation.

But while religious organizations have often been ahead of the curve on social issues, in this case they’ve been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There are gay-friendly churches, of course, but most of the organized opposition to gay marriage came from churches and other religious organizations.

In the Bob Jones case, the US government made a very important statement. It’s not enough, they said, to support the right of interracial couples to date and get married; it’s also important to register official disapproval of any organizations which fail to support that right. To be given exemption from paying taxes is a special privilege bestowed by the state on deserving organizations. But there’s nothing deserving about an organization which bans interracial dating. So, the state is entirely within its powers to remove that privilege.

The same argument can and should be applied to gay marriage. If your organization does not support the right of gay men and women to marry, then the government should be very clear that you’re in the wrong. And it should certainly not bend over backwards to give you the privilege of tax exemption.

We have religious freedom in this country, and any religious organization is entirely free to espouse whatever crazy views it likes. But when those views are fanatical and hurtful, they come into conflict with the views of any honorable legislator who believes in freedom and equality. And at that point, it makes perfect sense for our elected representatives to register their disapproval by abolishing the tax exemption for organizations who cling to narrow-minded and anachronistic views.

Conservatives should not object. The libertarian position here is simple and clear: everybody has freedom of conscience, including religious organizations; the tax code should apply equally to all; and the government should not be in the business of “picking winners”, and deciding who does and who doesn’t qualify for tax exemptions. So, abolish tax exemption for all religious organizations, whether they support gay marriage or not. Religion is concerned with spiritual matters; when it comes to taxes, the general principle is “give unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”. Which is to say, give to the country’s secular monetary authorities that which you owe in tax.

Many people would consider such a move — abolishing all religious tax exemptions — to be too drastic. But at the very least it is entirely right and proper for the state to say to a church that if you want to thumb your nose at a fundamental right which is held by all Americans, then we are not going to privilege you with tax-free status. We’ll let you practice your bigotry, at least within the confines of your own church. But we’re not about to reward you for doing so.

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