Friday, February 20, 2009

Faith Works 2-21-09
Jeff Gill

Taxing Times For Religious Groups

So, why don’t churches pay property taxes?

Not that long ago, you wouldn’t have heard that question asked, because it would hardly have made sense to anyone. In the last year, even last few weeks, I’ve run into the question in various forms not only on the internet, but face to face.

I’ve even been told “well, if churches paid their fair share, we wouldn’t have [insert favorite funding problem here].”


Skipping over my own cynicism on this subject (ok, let me just say this – lotteries were going to go for education? then education got cut, oh, about the same amount from other funding sources, so did the lottery really go to education support? Right.), let me try to answer the question straightforwardly.

Historically, churches, schools, and other non-profits have not paid property or sales taxes because they are voluntary associations made up of local citizens who come together for a common purpose. These members pay property taxes for their homes and real estate, and the sales tax on their own purchased goods, to cover the cost of schools, roads, police and fire service, et cetera.

To have voluntary bodies like churches pay property tax has been seen as a double tax on the very citizens who are already at work in their communities for the common good, running the food pantries and after school programs and tutoring and such, which is utterly counterproductive.

You see, taxes are paid by people. You and me, we work, we get paid, and a portion of that is taken by the federal, state, and local governmental bodies to pay for the common good, balanced – we hope – by our elected representatives’ oversight, which we as voters monitor and reward with re-election or punish with replacement. But taxes are paid by people.

So the idea that churches “aren’t paying their fair share” is a little suspect at it’s root, but if you see governments and large entities as “having money” that we as voters are shoving around on the civic table like croupiers do the chips at a Vegas roulette table, then this seems to make sense. Who has chips, and how can we move them about “more fairly.”

But people pay taxes. And churches are made up of people. Tax them, and you tax those people twice.

One response to that is the idea that churches have a vast pool of unearned wealth sitting in vaults that should be out on the roulette table of redistribution. The Catholic Church gets this one all the time. I’ve worked with Catholic Social Services and a couple of dioceses enough to say “Ha” to that one; aside from real estate, you’d be surprised to find out how little is actually liquid assets in their holdings.

Never mind that what endowments and funds church bodies have in reserve are usually legacies and bequests that went through probate, got taxed there, and are left by persons for particular purposes, often bound by legal agreements to start with. Anyhow.

Which brings us to the “Special Assessments” we’ve all gotten recently. I’m not a political columnist, but to write about faith communities and belief at work in people’s lives, a little political rain must fall. My own guiding political philosophy is the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” Most times, on the broader social level, stuff we do doesn’t do what we think it will – think welfare, welfare reform, de-institutionalization just for starters (look up “groundnut scheme” online for a global example that will peel your eyelids back).

The Muskingum Watershed Conservation District is staffed by good, decent, hardworking folk, and their public affairs person has been active and responsive with gracious good cheer since I started blogging on this issue a few weeks ago. This situation isn’t their fault, and we all agree that dams and levees and bridges should be maintained.

Having said that, this assessment is a scam and an affront to Ohio citizens, and even those not of a believing or church-going bent should be outraged. School districts are being assessed, as are churches and service groups and other property owners who have never heard boo-to-a-goose from any taxing entity, for thousands of dollars in some cases, hundreds at least to most, that was unanticipated and unplanned for and comes at a time of unprecedented economic challenge for such bodies.

Schools pay? Guess what – you’re paying twice, then. For work that – pardon me! – I thought we’d been paying taxes for to the Great State of Ohio to have done these last thirty years, only to learn it’s been so neglected and unfunded that we have to collect millions, right now, from churches and schools and campgrounds, and it could go up EVERY YEAR (they say “we hope we won’t have to increase it, but it will be reviewed annually,” striking a chill in my tiny little heart).

The main response to my astonishment at that is “it’s legal under provisions of the Ohio Revised Code.” Yep, it is.

But something can be legal and still be wrong.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s a little upset on behalf of little country churches right now. Calm him down with a note to

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