Churches, tax exemption, and the common good

"Christianity Today has been hosting an interesting debate on these issues. Paul Matzko...argued in the cover story of this month’s issue that tax exemption comes at a high a cost to the communities in which they are located....The argument is clever invoking many historical and legal details which, while factual, are misleading." - Acton

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Aaron Blumer's picture


Acton and Michael Wear are on target on this...

"Contrary to Matzko’s portrayal of an across-the-board religious tax exemption as a vestige of European-style establishmentarianism, houses of worship are tax exempt to respect religious freedom and the separation of church and state. What offends American sensibilities about the European tradition is not tax-exemption, but the practice of taxing disfavored denominations, and using those funds to prop up the state and its favored religion.

Consider Isaac Backus, who Matzko invokes as an “evangelical dissenter” against government favors for religious groups. He was that, but hardly because he felt churches should pay taxes."

Wear also notes that the restrictions on political speech for tax exempt organizations, which apply equally to all non-profits, prohibit only the explicit endorsement of a candidate or lobbying for a particular piece of legislation. They do not, “…prevent pastors or churches from teaching on issues like poverty, abortion, the environment, or any other issue of public import.”


What is most disturbing about Matzko’s essay is not the economic reductionism but the impoverished sense of the political and common good it demonstrates. It is a classic example of seeing like a state, reducing the complex interdependencies of our social life to a single state-centered public life.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Darm's picture

i wonder if readers recognize that Matzko is a BJU grad and the son of a long-time faculty member there.

Bert Perry's picture

....I would suggest that property taxes are in general a bad idea because they allow a government official to assign a value to a property that might not be related at all to what you could sell it for.  That's the core argument against property taxes for churches--if the assessor is an Episcopalian, you would always wonder whether the Catholic/Baptist/whatever church was over-assessed.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

dcbii's picture


The problem for municipalities, of course, is not just the loss of property taxes.  A church, if run properly, as a non-profit, will not generate other forms of tax for local governments, unless, of course, governments decide to tax their income, regardless of whether or not it's profit.  Even if XYZ church paid its property taxes, it will never generate as much revenue as for-profit businesses on that location.  Even divided up as residential, the land would generate far more in property tax from individual homes, unless the church property tax was adjusted up to match.

Of course, this applies to any non-profit, not just church related ones.  If they remove the tax exemption for churches, they'll essentially have to remove it for all non-profits, or admit that it's discriminatory against churches.

Dave Barnhart