Thank God for child-molesting priests, I always say. On August 5, the Oakland diocese of the Catholic church announced it will pay $56.3 million to victims of sexual abuse, and sell $25.3 million in property to finance the deal. All that land will go back onto the tax rolls -- and it's about damn time. Ever since the founding of the republic, religious groups have ducked paying their fair share of property taxes, forcing the rest of us to carry those pious pikers. All you taxpayers sick of shelling out dough for cops and firefighters while bishops and ministers laugh all the way to the bank finally get a little payback.
Let's say all the land about to be sold were located in Oakland, which just barely avoided firing librarians and park rangers to settle a $32 million budget shortfall. That would score the city an extra $330,000 in annual property taxes, enough to hire a fleet of librarians. Or take Acts Full Gospel, the largest church in the East Bay, whose Oakland headquarters is assessed at $4,579,330. Two years ago, Bishop Bob Jackson led a mob down to City Hall and demanded the city do something about the homicide epidemic. If his church had paid the same taxes we all pay, Oakland would have about $59,000 in extra cash every year -- roughly a police officer's salary. Instead, Acts Full Gospel pays just $1,270 in parcel taxes and special assessments.
Hey, we could go down the list all day. Berkeley's Congregation Beth El, which is about to move into a new home on Oxford Street, should be paying more than twenty grand. It pays $1,478. Have I mentioned that Berkeley faced a $10.5 million deficit this summer? The headquarters of Concord's Calvary Temple megachurch is valued at $9,502,310, which should put church leaders on the hook for $105,790. They pay only $13,492.
Let's all say it together: This is nuts. Cities throughout the East Bay could solve their budget problems overnight if they could force priests and rabbis and ministers to play by the same rules we all do. It's more than a matter of money -- forcing atheists and agnostics to pay extra taxes while Jesus freaks mooch off the public dime is morally offensive.
Conservatives love to fuss about how taxpayers must subsidize "offensive" art through the National Endowment of the Arts, whose annual budget is roughly $121 million. But in 1997, the assets of the Mormon Church were worth at least $30 billion, much of it consisting of land exempt from taxation. In other words, you are paying extra taxes to subsidize a church which affirms that God lives in a polygamous marriage on a planet near the star Kolob, that black people are cursed by God, and whose leaders were caught posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims. When you think about it, that's no less bizarre than Christianity, which nonbelievers are forced to subsidize to the tune of billions of dollars every year.
Religious institutions don't even have to follow basic rules to saddle us with their bills. Every other nonprofit must file forms with the IRS, detailing their revenues and expenditures to justify their tax-exempt status. This has the adjunct benefit of allowing outsiders to scrutinize their operations and catch them if they embezzle money or abuse the public trust. Churches, however, don't have to reveal any financial information to the public -- not even to their own parishioners. They are free to flout the basic ethics of transparency and conflict of interest that safeguard all other aspects of American life. Exactly how long could Catholic priests have gotten away with rape if the church was forced to divulge its books every year?
But religious leaders claim such rules would lead to government regulation of worship and violate the First Amendment -- when they bother to think about it, that is; this scam has been going on for more than two hundred years, and few people have ever had to defend it. "That was seen as the first step in the direction of disclosing information that may result in untoward regulation of churches by government, and excessive entanglement of church and state," says Brent Walker, a constitutional lawyer and the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. "If government has reason to think that churches are acting outside its purview, it can launch an investigation to see if that's the case. But the day-in, day-out relations between churches and government is bettered by not having to file those disclosures."
Feh, I say. For two centuries, newspapers have had to file financial information with the government, to say nothing of paying taxes, and the First Amendment has hardly been demolished. But then there's the argument that churches feed and clothe the poor and provide other public services that tax exemption would justify. "The work that the church does in returning back to the community, in counseling services, the work the church does for the poor and homeless, those in need, is worth more than the money we would pay," says Father Mark Wiesner, spokesman for the Oakland diocese. When asked why churches couldn't just deduct the expenses of such ministries from their taxable income, Wiesner argues that charity and worship services are so intertwined that disentangling them would be next to impossible.
That's why God made accountants.
In the end, the argument defending tax-exempt status is twofold: We've always done it this way; and not having to pay taxes isn't the same as subsidizing religion. "There is a constitutionally significant difference between giving on the one hand and not taking on the other," Walker says. "You are more lifting a burden than you are extending a benefit. If you extend a palpable benefit in the form of a subsidy, that would be deemed to establish a religion. But not taking away, lifting a burden, is more of an accommodation of the free exercise of religion."
That's just semantics in lieu of an argument. Once upon a time, atheists and agnostics were virtually unheard of in America. But now the number of secular Americans penalized by an 18th-century prejudice has swelled to the millions, and it's time they got a fair deal. In 1969, the Supreme Court was asked to end the exemption of property taxes for religious groups, and refused by a vote of eight to one. Only Justice William Douglas dissented.
"If believers are entitled to public financial support, so are nonbelievers," he wrote. "A believer and nonbeliever under the present law are treated differently because of the articles of their faith. Believers are doubtless comforted that the cause of religion is being fostered by this legislation. Yet one of the mandates of the First Amendment is to promote a viable, pluralistic society and to keep governments neutral, not only between sects, but also between believers and nonbelievers. ... Perhaps I have been misinformed. But as I have read the Constitution and its philosophy, I gathered that independence was the price of liberty."
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