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Study challenges tax exemption for religious organizations

How much money does the U.S. government forgo by not taxing religious institutions? According to a University of Tampa professor, perhaps as much as $71 billion a year.

Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the total cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions — on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and "parsonage allowances," which permit clergy to deduct housing costs.

Their article appears in the current issue of Free Inquiry magazine, published by the Council for Secular Humanism, an organization of nontheists. U.S. tax law grants religious groups and other nonprofits the exemptions because of their charitable nature.

And while the authors do not claim theirs is a comprehensive or unbiased appraisal, their findings have raised eyebrows in the nontheist community, which has long sought to eliminate the tax exemptions on the grounds that they unfairly favor religious institutions.

"The issue of religious tax preferment is especially relevant now because the number of Americans living outside any religious tradition continues to grow," said Tom Flynn, Free Inquiry's editor. "That underscores the unfairness of taxing all Americans to subsidize religious institutions that only some Americans utilize."

But Mark Rienzi, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said that Americans have made a democratic decision that religious institutions are good for our communities — believers and atheists alike.

"Whether it is the Quakers opposing slavery, Reverend King arguing for equality, or a Catholic soup kitchen feeding and sheltering all in need," Rienzi said, "our history is full of examples confirming the great public benefit of our religious diversity."

If history is a guide, the Free Inquiry article and any call for tax reform it may engender are not likely to have much effect. Since the 1950s, there have been several attempts to quantify religious tax exemptions — all of them wildly varied in their conclusions — and only a handful of legal challenges to those exemptions. Most were unsuccessful.

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TAGGED: RELIGION


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