Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Religious Subsidies

Although not universally so, it is plain that wealth, possessions, power, prestige and authority are very much of interest to many organised religious groups. Others simply want to be left alone by society and exercise control of their members. Nearly all, however, are willing to take advantage of tax laws which give them special privileges not available to other organisations. Among Christian groups this is quite surprising, since there is a well known account in one of the gospels that records Jesus responding to a question about whether his followers should pay taxes by holding up a coin and asking whose image was on it. “Caesar’s,” was the response. “So, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to god what belongs to god.”, he replied, meaning that his followers should pay their taxes but worship Yahweh, the Jewish god.

In view of this, surely Christian religious organisations would want to pay their taxes and forgo any special treatment and exemptions the state gives to them. That is, after all, what their god told them to do. They would certainly not want to propose such tax exemptions, since their founder made it so very clear he wanted them to pay up. Is that the case? Well, of course it is not! Not only do Christian religious organisations use every tax break, exemption and loophole they can find, they also claim those exemptions for funds they accrue from commercial enterprises they control, using the argument that they are owned by a religious group so the profits are a contribution to a religious group, and they are entitled to not pay tax on them.

What rubs salt into this wound is that at the same time as they use the law to justify claiming those tax exemptions, they violate the law by insisting that they have the right to practice discrimination forbidden to anybody else when that discrimination is based on their religious dogma. Refusing to allow homosexuals to rent rooms in church owned properties is a prime example which raises its ugly head with monotonous frequency.

Their attitude seems to be to use the law when it is of benefit, but to ignore the law when it outlaws actions they want to follow. Interestingly, and apropos to this, is a statement by the Christian apostle Paul, who told Christians they must be in subjection to the superior authorities, or governments, since god had put them in place. That alone would forbid discrimination against groups of people when the law makes such discrimination unlawful. Christians would obviously also do this willingly, not grudgingly, since their god commanded them to obey the law and, as the bible says, “god loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians, chapter 9, v7). Is that the case? Do they cheerfully refuse to discriminate against homosexuals? No, they do not!

Since religious belief is a private matter there is no valid reason to allow tax deductions for contributions made to a religious organisation. Doing so could only have the purpose of supporting the existence of the religious organisation so its members could practice the religion more easily. Allowing tax relief for contributions would put other citizens in the position of paying to provide support for the practice of someone else’s religion, one whose tenets they may very well disagree with, or even find offensive.

Religious activities are unique among tax deductions in that a personal, private matter is treated by the state as if it were a public asset. It is not, it is private and personal and should not be subsidised by taxpayers, because that is what tax deductions are when permitted for religious citizens but denied for the non-religious. Each dollar not collected in taxes because of tax deductions for religious donations must be replaced by a dollar collected from other people, that is, they must pay more in some way so the state can raise the same amount of money from the tax system it would have raised if the deductions had not been permitted. Should the money be borrowed by the government rather than raised through taxes, the end result is not much different, just that taxpayers must go more deeply into debt to finance these religious subsidies and constantly pay interest on the outstanding balance. Surely, permitted deductions from taxes should be in activities supported by the state as public policy and which are required for the benefit of the population as a whole and not to facilitate the activities of private religious groups, possibly increasing their wealth at public expense. Of course, in truth we are not talking about just a few dollars here and there, but about millions of dollars annually.

We should bear in mind that some religions require its members to tithe, that is, to pay one tenth of their increase in wealth to the religious organisation. Usually this is pay from working or the profits from a business and may be based on the gross or net amount depending on the group. In some groups tithing may be considered voluntary, although there may be varying degrees of peer pressure from other members and the organisation itself. Tithing can very quickly mount up, especially if the religious organisation itself is not liable to pay any taxes on its income and is also exempt from other taxes, such as property taxes. Consider a group with 100 members, 50 of whom have gross yearly earned income of $50,000. Ten percent of that is $5,000 from each of 50 members, a total of $250,000. Up to this point it is obviously not the state’s business. It is the individual’s choice as to whether they tithe or not, and nobody else should be involved.

What happens next, though, is the state’s business, and as a tax paying citizen, mine as well. If a tax deduction for this amount is given at the rate of 17% of the amount donated, this comes to a total allowable deduction of $42,500 for that group. If the average tax rate of members in that group is 20%, which is not unreasonable, the actual subsidy given by the state to the one religious group is $8,500. That $8,500 is properly my concern since reducing the taxes required to be paid by those who tithed by that amount means that other taxpayers like me must pay $8,500 more in some kind of tax if the state is to raise the money it needs.

On an individual basis the subsidy for each of the tithing members would only be $170, but multiply this by the thousands of individuals claiming large and small religious donations and the amount grows tremendously. Even so, the actual dollar amount is not the important point. It would still be improper even if it were only a single dollar. The state should not be compelling taxpayers to subsidise religion. That is the point.

The state should not be in the business of subsidising religion when religious belief is a private matter, since it compels citizens who are not members of that religious group, including atheists, other non-religious citizens and members of other religious groups, to financially subsidise organisations with which they fundamentally disagree and do not support. In those states which have a sharp demarcation between religion and the state, as the USA and Canada do, allowing for these subsidies surely contradicts the principle of the separation of church and state, certainly in spirit and intent, if not in law.

The same points can be made regarding property taxes on churches and church property. This is owned by the church, presumably to facilitate its functions as a religious institution. Its adherents should be responsible for all costs associated with these properties. That includes property taxes and municipal utility costs (rates and taxes), and services such as electricity and gas for heating etc.. Remitting or using a lower rate for calculating rates and taxes for religious buildings is just a hidden subsidy and has no place in a community which is required to keep a strict separation between church and the community governance.

The situation with electricity and gas, and similar utility services, may be different depending on whether these are provided by a community owned corporation or a private corporation. If it is community owned, then there should be no difference between the rates used for church property and the rates set for private individuals or corporations, i.e. there should be no subsidy deriving from a preferential cost rating. If preferential rates are given to religious groups for their properties, then the overall rates have to be increased so that the same amount of revenue may be obtained by the community provider, meaning that others must pay more so that the religion may pay less. Nobody should be required to do this, including atheists, since it is no different from compelling people to support a religion. The amount of increase does not matter, it is the fact that people are being required to pay more so a religious group can pay less that is improper.

Where the services are provided by a private corporation they may, of course, charge what they like, subject to any oversight group, such as the BC Utilities Commission. However, subsidies which are given to religious groups’ properties should come from the owners’ profits and not from a general increase in rates for other people. Since we do not live in an ideal world, and the utility may attempt to recoup its donation of lower rates to religious groups by charging everyone else a higher rate, the oversight group should take this into account when authorising what rates the utility may charge and set them at a level which ensures that other consumers do not pay any extra because religious groups receive preferential pricing, i.e. the rate should be set so that the utility’s final profit is based on a single rate structure and their profits reduced by the amount foregone by providing preferential pricing to religious groups, rather than being set slightly higher to replace the foregone profit.

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