Italy and Israel: Fewer Special Favors for the Religious

This week has produced two exciting pieces of news, although (sadly) neither one pertains to the United States.

First, Italy is strongly considering charging the Vatican property taxes on all non-church properties. The Vatican owns quite a bit of commercial property in Italy, including hostels, hospitals, etc., but doesn’t pay property taxes on any of it. Churches would still be exempt, but this proposal could raise millions — or even billions — of Euros a year if implemented.

Tax benefits for religious organizations are a pet peeve of mine, so I’m thrilled to see social pressure creating an impact in another country.  The way I understand it, Italians are getting fed up with foregoing such a huge source of income, especially because money is so tight in this economy.  Which begs the question: why aren’t Americans more upset about this in our country?  Many people think religious organizations do good (and they sometimes do, of course), and therefore should be subsidized, but I also imagine that many people simply haven’t thought about it.

Under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, religious organizations and other non-profts are exempt from paying federal income taxes.  And at the state level, they’re exempt from paying property taxes.  Part of the deal, though, at least at the federal level, is that these organizations cannot engage in “political activity.”  If they do, they lose their tax exempt status.  And that means that no congregation leaders ever endorse candidates for public office, or if they do, then they lose their tax benefits immediately. 

What?  You don’t think that’s the way it actually works?  Then check out Project Fair Play for some additional info.  And maybe social pressure can make some changes here in the U.S., too.

Second, the Israeli Supreme Court has invalidated a military exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews.  Again, there seems to have been social pressure from the rest of the population: simply stated, it seemed unfair that one group would get a special exemption while the majority of citizens did not.

The First Amendment provides religion a special place in this country, and that’s OK.  But the more people speak up about this kind of favoritism, then (perhaps) the more questions will be asked about how special that place needs to be.

About katherine

Born in Texas, Katherine is now a lawyer in the northwestern United States.

  • Gordon Duffy

    They should all be paying tax whether they engage in politics or not

  • oambitiousone

    All that money is tempting, but I would not want the church any closer to government.

    It’s bad enough how often religion informs people’s decisions. If they paid taxes, they would want even MORE to dictate how we can live (i.e. “religious freedom” by means of social coercion).

    • Kevin S.

      Hey, the churches themselves still aren’t paying property taxes, and as long as they truly are non-profit (as opposed to money-making megachurches), I’m okay with that.  But when religious institutions dabble in the public and commercial spheres, they play by the same rules as everybody else.  Period.

  • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ Anonymous

    ‘F I weren’t already somewhat drunk, I’d drink to that news. As is, I’ll just do so retroactively.

    *raises empty glass*

    Cheers.

  • Anonymous

    Another special treatment for churches is that they don’t have to prove that they’re non-profit. It’s just assumed. If you open a non-profit organization, you have to file documentation showing your earnings. Churches don’t.

  • Anonymous

    If churches in the US can’t get involved inpolitics or they risk losing tax exemptions, then surely the church in the photo that is in this article should lose.
    http://freethinker.co.uk/2012/02/25/will-a-booming-voice-deter-church-thieves/#comments 
    Sorry if this hasn’t come out right, I’m doped up to the eyeballs at the moment with painkillers.

    • Anonymous

       Strictly speaking, they can get involved in politics and they do it all the time. They can’t advocate for a candidate, but unfortunately they can advocate for or against causes

  • Coyotenose

    The estimates I’ve seen indicate that religious tax exemption costs us $130 billion dollars a year in revenue.  No one can seriously pretend that the value of the social services of religious organizations comes anywhere close to that number, not when a church typically has trouble even taking the pressure off of a couple of its seriously ailing members through donations.

    While some churches are impoverished or nearly so, most of these tax exempt dollars don’t do anything except make more dollars, let a few leaders enjoy comfortable lives, and finance bigotry and ignorance. Let them pay.

  • Andytk

    Given that every tax dollar not collected for some reason must be made up by somebody else paying more we should only give out tax relief to organization that provide services either not provided by the government or can provide services that the government does provide more efficiently.  Citizens shouldn’t be forced to pay more in taxes to support somebody else’s private club, even if twice a year they run a pancake breakfast fundraiser for a battered women’s shelter.
    Here is my proposal:
    1) Eliminate the special class of Religion from the tax code and move existing religious organization to non-profit.
    2) Require all non-profits to post a collection of data about itself to a government database each year.  This information includes a breakdown of income and expenses including income from dues, donations, government programs and expenses both in group (staff, building maintenance etc.) and out group services (soup kitchens, homeless shelter, AA meetings, etc.).  This information is freely available from a government web site to anybody that wishes to either view it or download it for further processing.
    3) To retain non-profit status an organization must provide at least 51% of its income to out group services as averaged over a three year period.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    although (sadly) neither one pertains to the United States

    American privilege?

  • http://shockwaveplasma.net Shockwave Plasma

    I believe in the US, church owned business have to pay taxes just like any other business. Australia is different, as businesses owned buy religious institutions have much less tax to pay, and these do not include taxes on company profits.
    In Australia it have been termed the Purple Economy.

    The Secular Party estimated this cost about $30Billion a year.

    http://www.catherinedeveny.com/columns/2011/2/8/q-and-a-30-billion-church-tax-breaks.html

    I think the term “Purple Economy” really needs to be used more. 

  • Guest

    Many (non-religious) non-profits are involved in politics, why get upset at a specific organization rather than all politically-charged non-profits?  The answer seems to be that you disagree with their “political” stances.  It seems better to have a blanket rule either way (allowing tax-exemption for all or denying it for all), rather than having the government specifically silencing non-profits with whom it disagrees.  Especially when, as you note, religion is afforded a specific grant of protection in the Constitution. 

  • http://www.phoenixgarage.org/ cr0sh

    I sometimes wonder if churches and other religious organizations wouldn’t be all-too-happy to pay taxes, just to be able to operate openly and freely without any scrutiny in our political process? As it is, it is “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” – we know they meddle, but there isn’t much we can do about it due to the overwhelming privileged status they enjoy, coupled by the support (and protection) of the deluded masses.

    Taxing them would collapse  the burning firewall that is enshrined in the concept of “separation of church and state”; it would return society back to the issues and ills of 14th century (if not earlier). That was time when there were two f’ing popes with two political alliances, each declaring the other a heresy, apostate, etc; villages, towns, cities were ravaged with war over the issue (among other problems). Ugly doesn’t begin to describe it.

    The problem is, though, how do you effectively punish and curtail such egregious conduct? Taxing them merely gives them what they want, control and a voice to the masses – which they already have to a large extent. You can’t ban them (1st amendment issues there – I don’t want to go there – that’d be worse! You can’t break any “corporate charter” either (even if you could, that’d just be another “schism” event to further fraction the group into other sub-groups – no gain there).

    Sadly, I think the only method is social, via education reform; we need to get our public education system under control, and out from under the hands of religion. They know this, and have been winning changes to put this system under their control for decades, and for some reason, those of us not under the spell of their delusions have not been able to bring it back to equilibrium as quickly as we would like. Our education system is a shambles; the public advocates for the teaching and methods of teaching of the most inane things, rather than advocating for a curriculum that integrates critical thinking as a core skill. That said, when the public is told via their religion to not think critically, how does anyone expect this to happen? Right now it only happens via osmosis and luck; some kids get it via the internet early, some have to wait for university – some never get it.

    Bah – I’m depressing myself here…

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/ Ani Sharmin

    I don’t know where the idea came from that religious institutions should be tax exempt, but it doesn’t make any sense to me. Of course, no religion should be singled out to pay extra taxes because other disagree with them. Paying the same taxes as any other institution isn’t unfair, though. I tend to think that charities can be tax exempt, but not the entire religious institution, which has parts that (like a commenter above said) is basically a private club.

    In fact, I tend to think that the whole idea of religious institutions being tax exempt is actually a form of religious discrimination, because it’s basically giving special privilege to organized religions that are officially recognized as religions by the government.

  • Good and Godless

    Can us Atheists just get a few thousand dollar tax deduction for claiming to be Atheists and leave the religious types to singularly carry the burden of these freeloading religions?

    If the US government cannot pass a law favoring the establishment of religion, can they at least pass a law favoring the non-establishment of religion?

    Even might shake a few more Atheists out of the woods.

  • http://www.whereisisrael.com/ where is israel

    The military exemption in Israel still exists, but it is in a status of debate.

  • Markrosen

    Hey guys,
    Check out this new passover video on youtube.
    Its filmed in Israel and very inspirational music!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u0UN_06tess 


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