Life-Changing Moments in Duluth, Minnesota

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 16 April 2009 0 Comments
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Do you believe churches would speak with lesser timidity against injustice if they were not beholden to the government for their tax-exempt status? I know some churches have spoken out on certain issues that have provoked an investigation by the IRS, and they fight to maintain their tax-exempt status. You have written about paying taxes and have listed several reasons why you are not offended at having to pay your tax. It seems that church buildings occupy some prime real estate and taxes, especially local taxes, would go to the systems that help the poor and needy, improve health care, education and so on. Isn't it time churches pulled their weight and cut the government apron strings of their tax-exempt status?


Dear Stephen,

I have thought of that many times and have been unable to develop a firm position. The income that churches receive is presumably the charitable gifts of its members, on which those persons have already paid taxes. When Churches receive income from their own investments or from rental property, I think it should be taxed like all other new income. In exchange for their tax-exempt status churches are under an obligation to contribute to the well-being of all the citizens of the community. The government has the responsibility under the Constitution to protect the freedom to worship, but never to impose its will on a religious practice. Even in this arena there are gray areas. If a religious system opposes medical care, should the state intervene to keep a sick child from being victimized by that religious practice?

Churches, we need to remember, are not the only institutions in our society that are tax exempt. Military bases, hospitals, community organizations and non-religious community service groups also enjoy tax-exempt status. Does the tax-exempt status compromise the separation of Church and State? It clearly is a form of having the state support religious practices, but it does not move to establish one religious tradition. Does the tax-exempt status of churches blunt their message or compromise the message of judgment when that message needs to be spoken to a policy of the government like legalizing racism, patriarchy or homophobia? How about issues of war and peace, or of torture and environmental degradation? Those are the questions that make this issue complex.

An analysis of how these practices have lived themselves out in our history reveals that the abuse of the privilege cuts both ways. The black churches of the South were the organizing centers of the Civil Rights movement designed to oppose the laws of the nation at that time. That means that this was both a justice issue and a political issue. White evangelical churches in the South in our recent history have clearly been functioning as organizing centers for a conservative political agenda. That has gone on for a long time. Does the government bend the law or look the other way when it is in their political best interest to do so? Of course they do. When I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, many years ago (1965-69), Jerry Falwell's financial practices were being investigated rather vigorously by the Internal Revenue Service. Some of his bookkeeping practices were, shall we say, "creative." In 1980 when he organized the Moral Majority and threw the support of this religious network to Ronald Reagan's presidential drive, his payoff was that with the Reagan victory those investigations were quickly brought to an end. Influence flows both ways.

Basically I support a secular government that guarantees freedom of religion to all, up to the limits where religious principles violate human rights. That is, I think the state should allow and protect all forms of worship. I also think that the churches ought to be free to criticize the actions of the state without fear of repercussions. Churches, however, in our society ought not to be allowed to discriminate against people in non-religious jobs on the basis of some religious attitude or prejudice. Should a religiously identified hospital that receives great amounts of federal aid refuse to offer any legally recognized medical procedure because it violates their religious principles? I do not think so. It is a complex subject.

So your question is a good one but I find that I am ambivalent about changing the law as we now have it.

~John Shelby Spong



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