The New York Times has put an ironic twist on the 8th Commandment: “Thou shalt not steal.” It’s accused churches nationwide of fleecing taxpayers and local governments using the First Amendment.
The Times devoted more than 17,000 words and a four-day series indicting religious groups for what it argued was essentially cheating taxpayers across the country. The pro-government, pro-regulation treatise by business reporter Diana B. Henriques was titled "In God's Name."
Churches “enjoy an abundance of exemptions from regulations and taxes” and the result is “religious organizations of all faiths stand in a position that American businesses – and the thousands of nonprofit groups without that ‘religious’ label – can only envy,” wrote Henriques. But she wasn’t suggesting businesses and nonprofits should enjoy fewer regulations or taxes. On the contrary, the story series lobbied for more government control over religious organizations.
Henriques stated that “tax breaks are widely defended both as an acknowledgement of religion’s contributions to society and as a barrier to unjustified government limitations.” Her articles didn’t explore that defense; rather, they blamed religious organizations for burdening local governments and the churches’ neighbors – taxpayers. She referred to religious groups as a “cost” to government or other citizens 11 times.
In a country where 92 percent say they believe in God or a higher power, according to a recent Baylor University study, Henriques never mentioned that members of all the religious organizations would also be taxpayers – the same people who support their communities’ public services with their hard-earned dollars. Instead, her portrayal indicated congregations were mooching off the rest of their communities:
• “These organizations and their leaders still rely on public services – police and fire protection, street lights and storm drains, highway and bridge maintenance, food and drug inspections, national defense. But their tax exemptions shift the cost of providing those benefits onto other citizens. The total cost nationwide is not known, because no one keeps track.”
• “There are no national figures on how much money these tax breaks save religious organizations and on how much extra cost is shifted to other citizens.”
• “Congressional budget records show that just the income tax breaks uniquely available for ministers, rabbis and other clergy members cost taxpayers just under $500 million a year.”
A similar struggle of churches versus local economies also appeared on the front page of the October 9 USA Today, where Emily Bazar reported that “churches are being turned away by cities and towns that hope to enliven a fading downtown or boost their tax base.”
Churches ‘Costing’ Government Money
The idea that any time someone does not pay a dollar in taxes, that is a “cost” of one dollar to the government, is pervasive among journalists. The Business & Media Institute addressed common distortions on tax issues in a 2005 report, “Tax & Spin.”
Henriques used that logic to argue that tax breaks for religious groups cost local governments money – just as ABC’s “World News Sunday” did on its October 1 broadcast. In that story, reporter Geoff Morrell said the mayor of one Texas town feared churches would “bust the budget” because they weren’t paying taxes.
That’s “the same line opponents of federal tax cuts use,” said Pete Sepp, vice president for communications with the National Taxpayers Union.
And in Henriques’ stories, that zero-sum logic spilled over into a more personal accusation – that churches were shifting the tax burden onto other individuals in their cities.
Sepp said most people don't believe that another person's tax break worsens their situation. "Otherwise we would have no deductions, no exclusions,” he said. For example, childless people would protest the child tax credit, arguing that it was “shifting the tax burden” onto them. People gladly take deductions for mortgage interest, while understanding that credit card interest isn’t deductible – some financial decisions are favored by the tax structure.
But Henriques took churches to task for not paying property taxes. She admitted that while states exempt religious organizations from property taxes, they do it “typically through statutes that also cover charities, libraries, museums, private schools and other secular nonprofit groups. Indeed, when the Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of this tax break in 1970 it noted approvingly that the benefits did not fall exclusively on churches.” That key fact was buried in the story series, but the writer did not allow it any relevance.
“Historically, the reason for income and property tax exemptions was because of the benefit they provide to their community, because they lift a burden from the government,” said Mathew Staver, Founder and Chairman of the Liberty Counsel and Dean of the Liberty University School of Law. The Liberty Counsel describes itself as a “nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom.”
He mentioned that the Red Cross and other non-profits also receive tax exemptions for this reason.
The idea that localities have been hurting in property tax collections is laughable, Sepp said. "Most state and local governments have benefited handsomely from the run-up in housing values," he said. In fact, state and local revenue from property taxes has increased by a whopping 50 percent since 2000, according to the Census Bureau.
Attacking Churches for ‘Competing’ with Businesses
As the Business & Media Institute has documented, the mainstream media are not usually the biggest supporters of the free market system. Ironically, the Times series complained that religious organizations were hurting businesses by “competing” with many of their ministries, including bookstores and coffee shops.
Throughout the articles, religious groups were painted as villains: unfairly competing to provide child care in Alabama; seeking to destroy “open spaces” by fighting a zoning restriction in Colorado; discriminating by setting an age of retirement in New York; and being uncharitable by creating a retirement community for affluent seniors in Indiana.
Henriques wrote that religious tax exemptions “collide with other values important in this country.” The theme was that religious organizations are favored by government and receive special treatment in the form of tax breaks, exemptions from regulations and hiring and firing requirements, and advantages over businesses in fighting existing laws.
Those who consider such benefits an “affirmative action program for religion,” Staver said, he considers “naïve, uninformed or shortsighted,” because in attacking the benefits provided to religious non-profits, the effect would be to undermine those given to all non-profits.
“Some of the questions raised in the article ignore the historical perspective that churches have always adapted to the needs of the community,” said Gary McCaleb, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, which describes itself as a legal alliance that defends religious liberty. “A large part of Western civilization was preserved because long ago churches served as libraries, agricultural centers and schools for the community’s sake. And ironically we have people complaining today because churches are responding to needs as an act of their religious faith.”
Experts Cited Critical of Religion
Henriques didn’t acknowledge the radical nature of several anti-religious sources mentioned in her series. In a section about a tax dispute, she mentioned how the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco had appointed “Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor then on the faculty at the University of Southern California” to assist in the case. However, the Times article left out that Chemerinsky also has strident views against conservative Christianity – saying “The religious right is the enemy of freedom,” in a Web posting.
That post, a Sept. 28, 2005, article on the liberal Huffingtonpost blog, was headlined “Time to Fight the Religious Right.” The piece criticized fundamentalists of all religions who “share remarkably similar views on many issues – and remarkably similar intolerance.” Chemerinsky’s own comments mention how he “argued a case in the Supreme Court challenging a six-foot tall, three feet wide Ten Commandments monument that sits between the Texas State Capitol and the Texas Supreme Court.”
Further, Henriques ignored the widespread criticism of the Ninth Circuit as being liberal, and ruling that the words “under God” were an unconstitutional endorsement of religion in a case about the Pledge of Allegiance.
The Times acknowledged that another legal scholar was also a religion critic. Marci A. Hamilton, is “a law professor at the Cardozo law school at Yeshiva University in New York and the author of ‘God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law,’ which is critical of many religious exemptions, particularly in the areas of land use and family law.”
However, that only hinted at Hamilton’s position. In a Sept. 24, 2004, column on CNN.com, she called a bill in support of the words “under God” in the pledge as “lunacy.” “The powers that be at the moment have covered over these fundamental beliefs with misleading blather about how this is a ‘Christian’ nation, implying that Christians are the sole keeper of conscience and morals in the country,” she continued.
The Times story also referenced a study about abuse at child care centers and addiction treatment programs. The study was performed by the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, “a nonprofit research organization that opposed the faith-based initiatives.” Unsurprisingly, the analysis found higher instances of abuse and neglect at “alternatively accredited facilities” or religious sites.
However, Henriques again underplayed the anti-conservative nature of the organization. The fund is part of the Texas Freedom Network which claims on its own Web site works “to counter the religious right.” The fund “researches the agenda, activities and funding of the religious right.”