Though it probably should not have been, a recent headline in
The Indianapolis Star-$2.7 billion in property untaxed in Marion County-was a bit of a stunner. And more so was an adjoining article revealing nearly half of that property to be owned by churches and religious institutions.
In the article, the Rev. Kent Millard, senior pastor at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, invoked the separation of church and state as justification for St. Luke’s quarter-million-dollar annual tax dodge.
And I’m confident that he spoke without fear of contradiction from the rest of his non-secular colleagues. Christians, Jews and Muslims, while they may regard one another with murderous contempt on many issues, find miraculous brotherhood on the issue of taxation.
The problem with separation of church and state as a strategy to avoid taxation is that the reasoning itself is inherently flawed. Were it a true separation, government would not be tacitly financing religious institutions by exonerating them from the tax rolls.
Writing for the majority opinion in Reynolds v. U.S., an 1878 case striking down the right of Mormons to practice polygamy, Chief Justice Morrison Waite invoked the words “separation of church and state” for perhaps the first time in his interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s comment, “The legitimate powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions.”
Justice Waite went on to say, however, that while “Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion,” it “was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.”
The key words here are “social duties.” It is clearly the social duty, whether we’re happy about it or not, of us all to pay taxes. It is through taxation that we pay for vital government services-like the police officers who direct traffic as large congregations leave church parking lots.
Religious organizations will make the case that they meet their “social duties” through good works and can only do so if they remain untaxed. In fact, Greg Otolski, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Indianapolis, goes so far as to suggest the Catholic church offsets its tax break by educating 15,000 private-school students who would otherwise cost the public schools some $135 million each year.
I have friends with kids in Catholic schools. One of them pays nearly $12,000 a year for the privilege. So, it would seem, this is not quite the out-of-pocket cost for the church the archdiocese would have one believe. Add to that the archdiocese’s ownership of property valued at more than $150 million (if taxable, worth $5 million a year to the county) and one could conclude there’s a bit of a double standard at work, if not actual double-dipping.
Millard was uneasy enough with the entire subject that he did what seemed a bit of hand-wringing when he said, “The power to tax is the power to control and ultimately the power to destroy.”
Destroy? Taxation provides revenue that is used to build. And to provide myriad social services to the citizenry regardless of its philosophical like-mindedness.
If the church truly wishes to live up to its claim that it exists to help those less fortunate, it should pony up like the rest of us. Because losing one’s home due to an inability to pay the taxes-particularly when there are others perfectly capable but unwilling to do so-is truly an abomination that defies denomination.
Smith is an Indianapolis writer and producer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.