Niagara Gazette

Columns

January 15, 2013

CONFER: Political churches should pay taxes

Niagara Gazette — Churches are granted privilege under tax law. Most significantly, due to their status as 501(c)(3), they are federally tax exempt. Also, all 50 states exclude them from the property tax rolls. Across all tax breaks, churches in America realize $71 billion in savings according to a study conducted by the Council for Secular Humanism and the University of Tampa.

In order to maintain these breaks, the rules are pretty simple: keep your nose clean in the world of politics. Churches are allowed to involve themselves in matters of public policy without it being deemed lobbying — and incurring the wrath of the IRS — if their actions are kept within a certain set of parameters. They can conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, and pursue public policy in an entirely educational matter. What they can’t do is contact or urge the public to contact legislators in an effort to suggest, promote and oppose legislation or intervene in a political campaign and dictate to their followers who should be the winner or loser.

Most churches do a fantastic job of staying within the boundaries of the tax code while others tread a fine line between educating and lobbying. But, as we’ve seen in recent years, more and more churches are breaking the law with vigor and becoming fully involved in both policy and politics.

Take, for example, what happened on New Year’s Day when Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George and his auxiliary bishops issued a letter to their churches urging them to oppose the gay marriage bill that is up for vote in the Illinois legislature. Catholic Churches throughout the Diocese of Chicago issued the letter as a supplement to their church bulletins or emailed a copy to their parishioners.

Although brazen – and illegal – the Diocese’s actions are nowhere near as cocksure as the campaign called Pulpit Freedom Sunday. On one Sunday during the fall of every year since 2008, this movement has hit churches across the United States. What started as just 84 churches grew to 539 in 2011 to 1,586 in 2012 (a list of participants can be found at http://tinyurl.com/PoliticalChurches).

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