The Tennessee State Board of Equalization doesn’t tax churches.
But what about the gyms, bookstores, and cafes that are found in so many megachurches?
The state decided those are not part of the Christ Church ministry — they’re “commercial enterprises” — and therefore should be subject to taxation. $425,000 in property tax, to be exact.
That makes perfect sense. Which must be why the church is trying so hard to fight it.
The 2,300-member Christ Church insists that’s an outdated view of how churches operate, and those enterprises should be considered part of ministerial outreach.
“They think a church worships on Sunday and then everybody goes away,” pastor Dan Scott said. “Anything else you do is not church. But Christianity is not something you dive into once a week.”
… Christ Church shut down its cafe and bookstore and handed off its gym to the YMCA of Middle Tennessee this year as the dispute dragged on, moves meant to keep the tax bill from increasing.
The bookstore was too much like a commercial store, the board ruled. And because the gym charged membership fees, it was considered a business, not a ministry.
These churches have gotten away with tax-exemption for too long and if you’re looking for the next big battle for atheists, this is going to be it.
I don’t think most people know what should and shouldn’t be taxed — I’m certainly no expert — but figuring that out, and debating where the line must be drawn is incredibly important.
If any community member can pay membership for the gym located in your church, should it be taxed?
If a church bookstore makes a profit, should it be taxed? Which books can and can’t be sold in order to preserve a tax exemption? What about “regular” bookstores that sell a lot of Christian books? What’s the difference?
What about Chick-fil-As and Hobby Lobbys? Should they be tax exempt?
What’s the difference between coffee shops located inside churches and coffee shops that host a lot of Christian groups?
Should Scientology centers and mosques be taxed?
Should tithes get taxed?
What if a church endorses a political candidate, as many have done before? When will they get taxed?
If an Atheist Center of some sort opens up, should it be subject to property tax?
Some of those answers are really obvious. But not all of them.
I feel like atheists have a good idea of what constitutes church/state separation and when that’s violated. I don’t think I’m as confident, though, answering all the tax questions posed above. I have a hunch on most of them, but I can’t back those hunches up as well as, say, what’s ok and not ok to say in a public school.