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Peculiar Exemptions

February 21, 2015

“When a Religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, ’tis a Sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”

– Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Richard Price, October 1780

Religion is big business in the America. That’s no secret. Just exactly how big? That’s the secret, since religious organizations are exempt from financial disclosure.

The Economist estimated that the Vatican has a $170 billion annual operating budget, much of which is spent here, of course. That would put it among the top 25-30 national budgets in the world, somewhere near Iraq and Turkey. Mormons in the US tithe an estimated $6 billion in the name of their beliefs. We give all religious organizations combined an estimated $100 billion per year.

You indirectly subsidize these organizations whether you give your money to a church, synagogue or mosque, because the donations are tax-deductible. The effect on the annual federal budget for all charitable deductions is $39 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. We can derive from that an estimated $12 billion impact to the budget from the donations to the religious groups. This means that $12 billion for other budget items must be cut or taxes raised when Washington debates the country’s finances.

Religious groups don’t pay property taxes either. In 1875, President Ulyses S. Grant warned Congress that property tax exemption for churches was getting out of hand.

I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land….it is the accumulation of vast amounts of untaxed church property….In 1850, the church properties in the U.S. which paid no taxes, municipal or state, amounted to about $83 million. In 1860, the amount had doubled; in 1875, it is about $1 billion. By 1900, without check, it is safe to say this property will reach a sum exceeding $3 billion….so vast a sum, receiving all the protection and benefits of government without bearing its portion of the burdens and expenses of the same, will not be looked upon acquiescently by those who have to pay the taxes….I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.”

Grant got that right. Again, we don’t know how much property the tax-exempt religious own because they don’t report the same financial information that others must provide. You can find ranges of $300-$600 billion. This results in billions of dollars in property tax subsidies, perhaps as high as $26 billion. New Yorkers covered more than $600 million for their religious brothers and sisters a few years ago.

The religiously used real estate of the churches today constitutes a vast domain. See M. Larson & C. Lowell, The Churches: Their Riches, Revenues, and Immunities (1969). Their assets total over $141 billion, and their annual income at least $22 billion. Id. at 232. And the extent to which they are feeding from the public trough in a variety of forms is alarming. Id., c. 10.

– Justice William O. Douglas in his dissenting opinion in Walz v. Tax Commission of New York City, May 4, 1970

Subsidizing religion has been a topic from the beginning. In 1784, Patrick Henry, a member of the Virginia delegation proposed a tax on citizens to pay a tax to the Christian church of their choice. James Madison and others objected and succeeded in preventing passage of Henry’s bill.

Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offence against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. As the Bill violates equality by subjecting some to peculiar burdens, so it violates the same principle, by granting to others peculiar exemptions.

– James Madison

The first income tax exemption was written into the law by the fifty-third Congress in 1894, with the Wilson-Tariff Act.

Untitled picture

From the Ram’s Horn, an interdenominational social gospel magazine published in Chicago in the 1890s and early 20th century. A Double Burden shows the workingman carrying both high taxes and the plutocrat on his back. (Aug. 22, 1896 cover).

We find every little way to lend a hand. This week, a southern state passed a bipartisan bill to exempt churches from the state’s commercial driving license rules. Church bus drivers with a 30-person capacity will no longer need to hold a commercial drivers license. The bill’s sponsors maintained that this was an unnecessary hardship that was being imposed on churches by the state. The bill uses the term “church-owned.” It’s not clear to me that the sponsors intended this exclusively for the Christian faith. How about if the bus is owned by a synagogue? Or a mosque? That wouldn’t be very popular with voters, would it?


It seems to me that there’s good reason to test a person’s ability to drive a 30-35 foot vehicle. It doesn’t drive the same as passenger car or even a pickup truck. Just as important, it doesn’t stop the same way. No matter who is your co-pilot.


If Jesus drove a motor home
I wonder would he drive pedal to the metal, or real slow?
Checking out the stereo
Cassette playing Bob Dylan, motivation tapes

Tricked up Winnebago, with the tie-dye drapes
If Jesus drove a motor home
If Jesus drove a motor home
And he come to your town, would you try to talk to him?

Would you follow him around?
Honking horns at the drive through
Double-parking at the mall
Midnight at the Waffle House

Jesus eating eggs with y’all
If Jesus drove a motor home
Buddha on a motorcycle, Mohammad in a train
Here come Jesus in the passing lane

But everybody smile
‘Cause everybody’s grooving
Ain’t nothing like the feeling of moving
With a bona fide motorized savior

Now if we all drove motor homes, well maybe in the end
With no country to die for, we could just be friends
One world as our highway ain’t no yours or my way
We’d be cool wherever we roam if Jesus drove a motor home

Jim White


From → America

  1. Yeah, figger that’s about right, Ben.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re going straight to hell for this one, Bruce 😉

    This one has me a little bit concerned: Church bus drivers with a 30-person capacity will no longer need to hold a commercial drivers license. All I can say to that is “Jesus take the wheel…”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Problems become evident when religious beliefs transcend the spiritual realm and are incorporated into the real world through its actions and practices. This is precisely why America’s founding fathers constructed a secular “separation of church and state” with the very first words of the very first amendment to the U.S. Constitution (i.e. the Establishment Clause). Those Americans who deny this legal precept, and who seek to violate it, are not surprisingly led by a small but influential fundamentalist and theocratic Christian sect known as Dominionists.


  4. So, I wonder if the “Jesus is the answer” claimed a religious write off for his sign? Chuckled at Elyse’s comment. Better watch out Bruce. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I enjoyed reading your post, Bruce, and was completely taken aback by the legislation permitting churches to allow drivers without the correct licence type (or licence?) to operate a private bus. It seems a simple safety issue not a design on religious liberty to require all drivers be equally tested and licensed to operate motor vehicles.

    As to church operating budgets and their respective tax exemptions, I wonder if the cost is still not the lesser of two evils. For example, how much does it cost religious organizations to provide the same services that the government would then have to subsidize? I’m not sure if the tax payers would come out money ahead.

    Bruce for president!
    Laine-Anne 🙂


    • It does seem like a safety issue. Also, why not give same lenience to schools and little leagues and other organizations central to our society? Why not shuttle vans for hotels and airports?

      Thank you for your kind and generous words.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. That billboard is the best! You made me think of Joan Osbourne too, “What if God were one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make His way home.”

    I love how Ben Franklin is completely accepting of different religions: “well, if it can’t sustain itself, there’s your sign.”

    I was a Mormon for awhile, as a kid, and the 10% tithe was a very very Big Deal. It seemed to be central to a lot of what was going on. I had to give up 10% of my babysitting and lawnmowing income for the church. Wasn’t exactly sure why, except that if I didn’t, I was bad. Lucky for me, Mom got excommunicated before I started paying taxes. Because THAT would have been a double burden.


  7. Rosa Ave Fénix permalink

    God???? which one??? Jesus, we know through history, lived 2000 years ago, but was he really the son of God? Big Bussiness. Too many Gods, too many religions and all of them get money from the people who fall in their nets. I’m agnostic, perhaps I think Lao Tse and Confucious philosophies are good to follow. Your entry is very good!!!!!


  8. Rosa Ave Fénix permalink

    This morning I worte my thought about this… but I can’t understand… it has dissapeared…..


  9. This topic is one I have been bothered about for years. Churches, generating revenue yet paying no taxes. In my small city, 50% of the property is university or church owned and therefore, no property tax paid. This puts quite the burden on the residents.
    That bus driving licensure bill … perplexing to say the least.
    Your last comment made me chuckle


  10. There is a lot of food for thought here … but the state giving a free pass to churches for bus drivers? There just seem to be so many wrongs there.


  11. testing to see if post will go through.


  12. This is… a bit terrifying. As kids, my brother and I used to have to go to Sunday school taking the bus. I now wonder how much danger we are imposing on other kids who do the same.


  13. Perfect illustration and classic, as it still holds true today. LB makes great point. Lots of valuable tax-exempt property around here, ie, Harvard, Wellesley, Boston U, BC (which is being reviewed for failing to comply with ADA, etc. Then, of course, there is the NFL, which you wrote about last year. The list goes on …

    OK, the Orchard House is tax exempt, but have you seen it lately?! xo, LMA


  14. godless heathen! Keep up the good work.


  15. “New Yorkers covered more than $600 million for their religious brothers and sisters a few years ago.”

    “Super-dee-duper,” thinks this atheist New Yorker about that factoid, Bruce.


  16. Gosh I had no idea the sums of money involved were so huge! And as has been said already, the bus thing is scary! I can’t see the logic of that at all, the rules are there for safety purposes! Eek.


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