The Government Continues to Target Churches and Ministries

Some readers considered me alarmist when I spoke out so strongly against the Senator Charles Grassley investigation of 6 major media ministries. Certainly some of the ministries are pushing the limits in a number of ways, and I don’t personally agree with much of what some are doing. Should they be called on the carpet? Absolutely. But even if you strongly dislike these or other ministries, I’m not sure it’s the place of the government to decide the boundaries of what constitutes church or ministry. Besides, we already have the IRS to deal with, so do we really need more government intrusion into religious affairs?

Now, the Wall Street Journal, in yesterday’s addition cites numerous stories of government intervention in church and ministry affairs across the country in other ways. Particularly as churches or ministries grow and try to make a community impact, tax assessors are getting greedy and wanting a cut of the action. Granted, some of these operations are big, but I still wince when I hear of a local tax guy trying to score points by taxing a local church or trying to limit their operations.

We are in a changing time for religious expression – no question about that. Some ministries own TV stations or networks, churches own shopping malls, and still others work closely with government programs for relief work. So local tax agencies are trying to figure out how all this impacts the local economy and what should and shouldn’t be interfered with.

But that bothers some religious scholars. James Vaughn, law professor at Texas Tech University says, “When you have a taxing authority trying to decide what’s your ministry and what’s not, I see a problem here.”

I couldn’t agree more. The numbers are significant. According to the Journal:

Joyce Meyer Ministries was hit with a $372,000 tax bill in Fenton, Missouri.

Heartland Community Church in Rockford, IL was presented a $132,000 bill.

Evangel Cathedral in Maryland faced a $66,212 assessment. … and the growing list continues. Mostly spurred by aggressive, local, tax accessors.

I worry that if we can’t assemble a group of religious leaders and scholars to make a case of what is and isn’t ministry, and where the limits should be drawn, the government will do it for us. And trust me, the government’s opinion won’t match ours…..


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  1. This has been happening for years and the battle ground has been more a local one than a national one, though perhaps the Grassley investigations will garner it more attention.

    Local Property taxes are where this hits the hardest.

    Local Tax boards do not like non-profit organizations.  They have a set amount of property in their jurisdiction and when any parcel is made into a tax-exempt entity, depending upon the local and state laws, their taxable base is reduced which forces them to either raise rates on their smaller base or cut services.  (Of course, they could eliminate waste too, but be serious …..).

    So, in general there are certain strategies pursued.

    1.  Find every reason to deny the local proptery tax exemption application making it prohibitively expensive for some organizations to gain and so they give up and move somewhere else or pay the taxes.

    2.  Use zoning laws to prohibit churches from as many areas as possible.  This became such a problem in the late 90's it finally garnered enough attention at the Federal Level that congress passed a law limiting zoning boards from doing this.  (An instance of the Federal Gov't standing up for the churches against local and state gov'ts)

    3.  Parse existing laws to where property taxes are assessed on every part of a Church except the actual worship space on a pro-rated basis which of course, means the Church pays pretty close to the full assessment that any other organization does.

    If you don't mind me giving a plug, a pretty strong expert in this field is Richard Hammar whose Church Tax and Law report was a resource I used when I was in leadership roles at the Church and District level.  He's been beating this drum for a long time.

    I understand the dilemma faced by local governments.  They are cash strapped, and find themselves having to make hard choices.  The changes in our society taking place where the US is seen less as a Christian Nation coupled with the rise in Atheist Activists encouraged by the recent literary successes of Dawkins, Hutchins and Dennett sognal a potential change in public sentiment.  The Churches and Religious Non-Profits are safer targets to get cash than attempting to raise taxes and make no mistake, politicans in general know this and are testing the waters for the times and opportunities they can nibble away to garner these resources.

    It's not new.  It's been a trend for as long as I've been associated with ministry.  Maybe it's accelerating now.

  2. Phil, I appreciate your keeping tabs on this investigation and for keeping your eyes on the larger picture.

    The more common reaction in many quarters has been mostly one of Schadenfreud it seems. Plenty of people relish the thought of some ministry they particularly dislike getting stomped by the Grassley Investigation.

    But I think you are right in keeping the larger picture in view. I think that government coercion of churches is a definite peril.

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