From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
Cities eye churches as revenue source
21 May 1996 07:49:19
Here is a retransmittal of the "taxing churches" story.
Sorry for the lack of ASCII transmission the first time.
May 13, 1996
Office of Communication
United Church of Christ
In New York City:
William C. Winslow
Cities eye churches as revenue source
"Government seizes First Church for nonpayment of taxes,"
screams the tabloid headline. "Building to be sold at public
Fortunately, this headline has not yet been written. But
it could be. There's a movement in the land to tax churches,
and "it's not going to go away for awhile," warns the Rev.
Oliver Thomas, special counsel to the National Council of
Churches. "Too much government red ink."
Indeed, as the Washington largess dries up, municipal
governments are scrambling to tap new sources of revenue to pay
for services thrust on them. Churches and other charities make
an inviting target.
In Syracuse, N.Y., 60 percent of all property is tax
exempt. The mayor is trying to plug a $16 million deficit, and
he wants to put the bite on schools, hospitals and houses of
In Colorado, voters this November are faced with Amendment
3 which, if passed, would make virtually every non-profit
organization, from the Boy Scouts to churches, pay property
taxes. Proponents claim the estimated $70 million collected
annually in new tax revenue would reduce citizen's property
taxes, but opponents, including the United Church of Christ's
regional Rocky Mountain Conference, say it will severely
restrict the ability of churches to serve the poor.
To be sure, government over the years has chopped away at
religious autonomy. Ever since Congress changed the tax code in
1969, non-profit organizations pay taxes on profit-making
enterprises, even if those proceeds are used for charitable
purposes. Eager tax collectors look for ways to stretch the
definition of non-religious profiteering.
The assessor in Wickliffe, Ohio, told Covenant Baptist
Church it would be liable for taxes on the one-third of its
building used by a day care facility. In Maine, state law
mandates taxes on all church-owned property that is not
physically connected to a house of worship. The law is unevenly
enforced at the municipal level, but the United Church's Maine
Conference makes a $1,000 ?annual contribution? on its retreat
Taxing churches is not new. President Ulysses S. Grant
proposed it in 1875. But churches today are being asked to do
more as federal and state governments are doing less in
providing social services.
Any tax would strain resources. Ridge Road United Church
of Christ in Littleton, Colo., with a $55,000 annual budget,
would be forced to pay an estimated $6,600 in real estate taxes,
according to Stan Harwood, who is analyzing the issue for the
UCC?s Rocky Mountain Conference.
"It would pretty well wipe out our mission giving,"
concedes the Rev. Dick Putney, interim pastor. "It might even
put us out of business."
Even a large church like First Plymouth Church, a United
Church of Christ congregation in Englewood, Colo., with a budget
of $675,000, would have $56,000 less for outreach programs,
Harwood says. The church budgets $58,000 to wider missions and
ministries of the United Church of Christ.
The tax debate puts churches in a bind. Historically,
they have resisted being taxed on the constitutional ground of
separation of church and state. A tax intrudes on a church's
ability to decide how to use its resources. It also invites
government inspection of its financial affairs.
On the other hand, there is a growing body of churches
which feel a moral obligation to support basic community
services. Plymouth Congregational Church, a United Church
congregation in Syracuse, N.Y., pays a tax assessed on all
downtown property owners for cultural enrichment.
"We pay it because it is a sense of shared responsibility
for what goes on in the city," says the Rev. Harvey Pinyoun,
pastor. "It is good Congregational tradition that you can't
separate yourself from the world around you."
Ironically, if initiatives like the one in Colorado pass,
government would have to pick up the services that tax-paying
churches would be forced to cut.
The 1.5-million-member United Church of Christ, with
national offices in Cleveland, has more than 6,100 congregations
in the United States and Puerto Rico.
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