The Johnson Amendment — which does little more than prevent churches from explicitly endorsing or condemning political candidates — has been in the crosshairs (no pun intended but now that I’ve said it, I think it’s appropriate) of some misguided politicians for a while now because they feel it’s an unfair restriction on freedom of speech.
I think it doesn’t go far enough. There was an analysis of available records a few years ago that effectively confirmed George Carlin’s joke about how the Catholic Church alone could wipe out the federal budget deficit if all you did was tax them on their real estate holdings. It’s not surprising, then, that there’s a movement afoot to tax churches.
Couple this with arguments that churchgoers are more charitable than non-churchgoers, which generally fall apart when you factor out donations to the church itself, and how the lack of transparency on how an entity that calls itself a “church” actually spends its money raises some questions about what church donations actually spend their money on.
But there is a truth that many churches do operate legitimate charities, especially when it comes to helping the homeless, the infirm, or the hungry. (And not all of them consider women to be second class citizens whose only purpose is to bear children…)
So I’m thinking there needs to be a provision in the tax law that more explicitly defines what a church is, and any entity that fails to meet this definition simply isn’t a church.
Here’s my first thought on it. We can refine it as necessary but I think this is a good start. A church can only be defined as any entity that is affiliated with a religious organization with more than some number (is 100 a good number?) of adherents. Furthermore, it must spend at least some percentage (50?) of its total income on community services. Community services can be defined as expenses unrelated to any of the following:
- Staff salaries
- Construction, maintenance, or upkeep of facilities, including mortgages or rents on said facilities
- Utilities required to keep facilities operational. This includes, but is not limited to, electricity, plumbing/sewer, telecommunications, and internet connectivity
- Attempts to recruit additional members
When you look at the palace-like buildings owned and maintained by, say, the Mormons, it’s not unfair to question what they actually spend their money on, especially in comparison to secular charities like, say, Habitat for Humanity.
This would have the double affect of getting more transparency in church income and expenses, while also boosting the government’s coffers without raising taxes on the average taxpayer.
Then we can start debating the proper numbers to be filled in to my suggestions above.