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Religious Tax Breaks Cost America $71 Billion a Year

Religious Tax Breaks Cost America $71 Billion a Year

 

University of Tampa professor Ryan T. Cragun, with a little help from his students, has attempted to calculate how much religious tax exemptions cost America each year, and the figure is a staggering $71 billion.

The impetus behind calculating this figure came when professor Cragun was asked how much mansion-owning Reverend Randy White paid in taxes on his income. There was no readily available answer, and this got Cragun and his students thinking about what tax rules apply, the annual cost to America on those grounds and, as an adjunct, whether churches truly meet the criteria for such “charitable” tax donations.

A breakdown of how the professor and his colleagues arrived at this total, including the assumptions they had to make, is published in the latest issue of Free Inquiry. However, here’s an overview of what comprises the $71 billion figure:

  • Federal income tax subsidy: $35.3 billion
  • State income tax subsidy: $6.1 billion
  • Property tax subsidy: $26.2 billion
  • Investment tax subsidy: $41 million
  • Parsonage subsidy: $1.2 billion
  • Faith-Based Initiatives subsidy: $2.2 billion

This figure excludes a number of things, including volunteer labor subsidy, donor tax-exemption subsidies, and local income and property tax subsidies, among several others. This is because they are too difficult to calculate due to a number of variables. This means that the total figure is likely to be quite conservative.

This is what the authors had to say about these figures:

To put this into perspective, the combined total of government subsidies to agriculture in the United States in 2009 was estimated to be $180.8 billion. Religions receive at least 40 percent of the subsidy that agriculture does in the United States. Another way to illustrate the size of the subsidy may be to illustrate how much tax revenue would increase at the state level if religious institutions had to pay property taxes. In Florida, where the state government’s budget was $69.1 billion in 2011, the amount of tax revenue lost from subsidizing religious property was $2.2 billion or 3 percent of the state budget. The additional revenue would have mostly prevented the $1.1 billion cut to firefighter and police retirement plans and the $1.3 billion cut to public schools.

Other highlights include that individual states are propping up religious institutions by not requiring them to pay property tax:

States subsidize religions to the tune of about $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes for property worth about $600 billion. 25 This subsidy is of particular interest because property taxes pay for services such as firefighting and police, which religious institutions use the same as corporations and private citizens.

Also, that religious institutions, due to auditing restrictions, provide an ideal vehicle for money laundering:

However, religions are highly unlikely to be audited because Congress has imposed special limitations on when churches can be audited.14

What this means is that donations to religions are largely unregulated. In our discussions while investigating the subsidies to religion, we realized that religions would be the ideal way to launder money if you were engaged in an illegal enterprise. Hypothetically, the leader of a drug cartel could have one of his lieutenants start a church and file for tax-exempt status.15 Once granted, money from the sale of drugs could then be donated to the religion, which could use the funds to build extravagant buildings (including a “parsonage”), host extravagant “services” (a.k.a. parties) for members of the religion, and pay extravagant salaries to its ministers (including the leader of the cartel). Drug money could be laundered through the church’s bank accounts with little risk of being caught by authorities. If drug cartels and the Mafia aren’t already doing this, we’d be surprised.

The study’s authors note  it is unlikely that these tax exemptions will be repealed any time soon but, at the very least, the study points out the massive chunk of money that is being used to prop up religious institutions when those institutions have failed to demonstrate an equivalent level of actual charity work but continue to involve themselves in politics to a degree that should rule them out of tax exempt status.

Read a full overview of the calculations here.

 

Related Reading:

Is It Time To Start Taxing Churches?

Catholic Church Dumps Another Charity For LGBT Support

Atheist Asks Obama Why Faith-Based Hiring Discrimination Still Exists

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Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to Goldemberg Fonseca.

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66 comments

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4:42PM PDT on Jun 24, 2012

Tax all churches they are all just money making scams anyway!

7:40PM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

thanks

11:15AM PDT on Jun 23, 2012

Thank you Pam. It is obvious what is happening to the middle class to everyone except the tea party non-thinkers. They listen to Fox liar channel, Rush, and Beck so they don't think, they are Ditto Heads. Why else would any working person vote for Republicans...the party of the rich by the rich and for the rich.

9:04AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

This is especially deplorable when you see the folks like Benny Hinn and others of his ilk raking it in. We go after scam artists for all different types of scams - which is exactly what these are - so why don't we at least start taxing them? If these mega churches giving to their communities and non profits to help others, then let them get tax credits, just like the rest of us. But tax them. They also involve themselves in politics unabashedly, with little concern for "separation of church and state" unless it's the state getting involved in their biz. Then they scream and object based on "religion." These and all churches shouldn't be given tax subsidies and need to be taxed just like any business.

9:04AM PDT on Jun 22, 2012

This is especially deplorable when you see the folks like Benny Hinn and others of his ilk raking it in. We go after scam artists for all different types of scams - which is exactly what these are - so why don't we at least start taxing them? If these mega churches giving to their communities and non profits to help others, then let them get tax credits, just like the rest of us. But tax them. They also involve themselves in politics unabashedly, with little concern for "separation of church and state" unless it's the state getting involved in their biz. Then they scream and object based on "religion." These and all churches shouldn't be given tax subsidies and need to be taxed just like any business.

6:49PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Tax the rich...tax the churches, stop the oil subsidies. Pass the American Jobs Act, hire back the teachers, fire fighters, the police, and other public workers who provide needed services to the rich as well as the rest of us. More revenues coming in, more workers who pay taxes, and buy products means a better economy, and a lower deficit. No brainer.

3:30PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

ALL religious institutions should be taxed.

12:12PM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

Steve R - Babbling again? Godless? Are you kidding me? What you described are the republicans. Sounds like you are drinking the kool-aide again.
If we are in such debt, the churches and ministers should do the Christian thing and pay taxes. That simple. How you can equate that with being Godless is a real stretch. Is that from all the drugs you did in the 70's?

9:27AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

It is the 21st century. Could we all accept that "religion" is a gathering of folk tales to teach moral and lessons and these were written by PEOPLE....so.....get rid of the tax exempt status for churches and in the U.S. they could then have a real national health care program that could work and Canada could put the money into their existing health. Seems pretty "christian" to me to take care of the health of the people.

9:03AM PDT on Jun 21, 2012

So... tax the ones that are preaching politics and using the pulpit to bully their congregations into voting for certain people. Some churches, temples, mosques and store-front churches out there actually DO carry out the missions for which they were accredited. Some are just vanity pulpits for big-haired idiots.

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