The New York Times’ “Room for Debate” feature highlights religious freedom this week by asking the question: “Should Churches Get Tax Breaks?”
The contributors, who span the continuum of opinions on the issue, include Susan Jacoby, Christopher L. Eisgruber and Lawrence Sager, Winnie Varghese, Dan Barker, and Mark Rienzi.
Jacoby, who recently debated the merits of Christianity in American politics and Grand Rapids’ Fountain Street Church, is an advocate for secularism and author of The Age of American Unreason. Jacoby argues that if a church wants federal help, it must play by the government’s rules:
In cases involving freedom of conscience, government policy—like the Bill of Rights—should always be on the side of the individual. If churches don’t like the strings attached to public money, they are free to refuse taxpayer subsidies. The First Amendment was not written for an America in which religion claimed the right to have it both ways.
But if we selectively confer benefits on religion that run beyond the scope of these commitments, we are doing as much harm to equality as if we disfavor some or all religions. If churches receive exemptions from taxes or zoning laws along with other socially desirable enterprises – say schools and community centers – that’s fine. But it is unjust to make churches the sole beneficiaries of such exemptions.
Varghese introduces a religious perspective to the debate, though not a particularly orthodox one. Varghese, priest at St. Marks Church-in-the-Bowery calls herself a “progressive Christian” and advocates for tax-exempt churches because liberal churches like hers play a vital role in moving society forward:
Our tax-exempt status gives minority views a space to seed and grow, often ahead of the political culture. This is possible in part because of the diverse church communities that develop because of where the buildings happen to be. We are not the majority in our traditions, but we are game changers.
Barker, a minister-turned-atheist, is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Barker posits that government should cut all breaks to religious organizations, because to do so is “an endorsement of religion over nonreligion.” Barker’s solution:
Tax advantages to churches and religious organizations should be curtailed and brought in line with those granted to secular charitable groups. Whatever public good might stem from some religious activity, it is no greater than that accomplished by secular groups. They should be treated equally.
Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, points out that secular nonprofits—Harvard University, for example—receive tax breaks. He uses that knowledge, paired with historical accounts in which the Church has uniquely benefited society, to make a case for the necessity of governmental support of religion in America:
As Justice Elena Kagan recently explained, religious groups provide a “critical buffer” against the power of government, and religious autonomy “has often served as a shield against oppressive civil laws.”
The debate puts a finger to the pulse of one of America’s most contentious and pressing issues by showcasing the range of perspectives that currently exist. In order to remain a relevant institution in the public square, it is the responsibility of the Church to defend its public merit and offer itself to society as an unwavering force for good.