Why is your church tax exempt? Why should it continue to be tax exempt? If I were to sit down and ask you these questions, would you have a clear and coherent answer? I suspect this is something we seldom think about. After all, tax exemption for churches has always been given and we assume, because of its historical longevity, it always will be given.
The fact that most Americans cannot explain why their church is tax exempt indicates a forgotten history and is emblematic of a society that has systematically devalued the church as a beneficial societal institution.
Whenever I litigate a case about church tax exemption or Pulpit Freedom Sunday, the inevitable media comments go something like this: “Churches should pay taxes just like everyone else! They have tons of money, so why can’t they pay their fair share? Why should churches get a free ride? Make them pay!” Comments like these are more prevalent today than any other time I can remember.
Cases involving local governments attempting to tax churches are also becoming more prevalent. For example, ADF recently litigated and won a case against the City of Mission, Kansas, for attempting to impose a “driveway tax” on churches. Or consider the case of Liberty Assembly of God in New Hampshire which was slapped with a property tax bill simply because the local taxing authorities rifled through the church buildings and concluded that because some rooms were “untidy,” the church was not using them for a religious purpose.
So why should churches be tax exempt? There are very sound and valid reasons for church tax exemption. First, there is the “social benefit” theory of tax exemption. This recognizes the fact that churches provide great benefits to society by their good works. Churches minister to the poor and needy in the community, provide numerous social services for the downtrodden among us, and reach out to the “least of these” in thousands of different ways. The social benefit theory justifies tax exemption for churches as a kind of bargain – churches provide needed services, so they are entitled to tax exemption.
One corollary of the “social benefit” theory that is often overlooked is what I have termed the “intangible benefit” theory of tax exemption. This highlights the intangible and often unseen benefits provided by churches to the community. Things like reduced crime rates resulting from transformed lives, suicides prevented when people surrender to Christ, and people with destructive behavioral patterns that harm the community changing into hard-working and virtuous citizens who contribute to the well-being of the community. It is difficult to put a price tag on these types of intangible benefits provided by churches, but there is no question that they exist.
An interesting study conducted a few years ago attempted to put a value on the economic worth of one church. The study estimated that the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia provided over six million dollars of economic value to the community, a figure that is nearly ten times the church’s annual budget.
It is easy to see the benefits provided by churches. In fact, churches provide more social services and intangible benefits to the community than they would ever pay in taxes. It makes no sense to tax churches because the tax dollars taken from the church reduce the amount of benefits it can provide to the community. In a very real sense, taxing churches harms society.
But there is also a constitutional reason why churches are tax exempt. Our history is one of an unbroken practice of exempting churches from taxation. Churches were exempt from the very first time the tax code was passed at the federal level, and have remained exempt in every iteration of the tax code ever since. Every state in America also exempts churches from property taxes. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided a case regarding the property tax exemption of churches, called Walz v. Tax Commission, it stated that providing a tax exemption for churches was a less intrusive option under the Constitution than requiring churches to pay taxes.
That makes sense when you stop and think about it. As the Supreme Court said in a very early case, “The power to tax involves the power to control.” Taxation is, in essence, a very strong assertion of control by a sovereign over its subjects. Exempting churches is a way to ensure that the state cannot control churches.
Overall, there are very good reasons why churches are tax exempt. We need to remember these reasons and proclaim them to others in society who reflexively shout that the Church should pay its fair share. We should take up the cause of passionate defenders of church tax exemption like Kentucky State Representative Whittaker. During the debates on the Kentucky Constitution in 1890, he loudly proclaimed, “Let an untaxed Gospel be preached, in an untaxed church-house, from an untaxed pulpit; let the emblem of a crucified, but risen Christ be administered from an untaxed altar, and, as the spire points heavenward, . . . let it stand forever untaxed.” Amen.