In the course of being interviewed on various radio and TV talk shows, I have noticed that some people — usually some self-styled "village atheist" — cannot think straight about religious freedom because they are obsessed with the fact that churches are granted property tax exemption. Another Spanish Inquisition could be going full blast — but all they would care about is whether churches paid property taxes.
Somehow many have got it into their minds that because churches enjoy tax-exempt status, the state has granted them some special privilege. From some people's point of view, the cost of this "privilege" ought to be regulation and control by the state.
Other people have a slightly different, but equally erroneous idea in their heads. Churches enjoy tax exemption, they say, because they do good works and relieve the government of some of its welfare burden. Of course, the idea boomerangs: if the government ceases to think that churches serve its purposes, or if a church has a different idea of how it should spend its money than merely duplicating the. local welfare office, then no tax exemption could be granted.
So it should come as a surprise to them to find out that church property — tax exemption is not some handout from an overly generous Legislature, but is something which flows from the very Constitution of the United States.
Unlike freedom of the press, or assembly or speech, religious freedom is protected twice in the First Amendment of the Constitution. One part of the First Amendment forbids the government to interfere with your "free exercise" of your religion, another part forbids the government to "establish" its own religion.
There's nothing that says the government can't "establish" its own press — witness all the official government publications — or its own right of free speech — government officials speak out all the time — but religion is special. It is, as I heard Dean Kelley of the National Council of Churches say once (we were guests on the same talk show), "unique and
"The point of the Supreme Court's ruling is that if the choice is between taxing church property or not taxing it, the most 'neutral' course is not to tax. Any other result... would 'entangle' government in church affairs."different from everything else that government applies."
Some people think a church's tax exemption is just the same as a government subsidy. One Supreme Court justice, fortunately in the minority, just came out and said it once, "A tax exemption is a subsidy." The mentality behind that idea is a little frightening — by the same reasoning, everything that is not taxed is like being on the government payroll!
Fortunately, about a decade ago, the Supreme Court considered this argument and rejected it. A property owner in New York sued to force the New York City Tax Commission to tax church property; He said that not taxing was like granting a subsidy. It was as if the city were funding churches out of tax dollars, which, of course, would violate the separation of church and state.
But the Supreme Court said that it would violate the separation of church and state not to grant churches tax exemption! The Court said:
"Elimination of exemption would tend to expand the involvement of government by giving rise to tax valuation of church property, tax liens, tax foreclosures, and the direct confrontations and conflicts that follow in the train of those legal processes."
The point of the Supreme Court's ruling is that if the choice is between taxing church property or not taxing it, the most "neutral" course is not to tax. Any other result would itself violate the principle of separation of church and state because it would "entangle" government in church affairs.
Now here is a surprise: the Worldwide Church of God is the second largest property-tax payer in Pasadena, California! While we have a constitutional right not to be taxed, Herbert W. Armstrong long ago set a policy that we would not seek exemption from all property taxes. We believe in being good neighbors and haven't tried to grasp every last bit of advantage that is rightfully ours.
Nevertheless, an important principle — at the core of preserving the liberty of God's Government to operate freely within His Church — is that just because our property is tax exempt does not mean we are owned by the state. Churches are not, in one dissenting justice's curmudgeonly phrase, "feeding at the public trough," because their property cannot be taxed away from them.