EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


November 28, 2012

Column: It's time to reconsider tax exemptions for religious institutions

While we’re on the topic of the fiscal cliff (that’s what everyone’s talking about, isn’t it?) let’s not forget that there’s one hefty sum Congress and the president could raise without too much trouble.

In April, a University of Tampa professor, Ryan Cragun, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions. They came to the conclusion that by denying religious institutions tax exemptions on property donations, business enterprises, capital gains on investments and sales and “parsonage allowances,” the Treasury could raise as much as $71 billion a year.

Right now there are two complaints percolating through the Internal Revenue Service that challenge the ability of churches to take political stands and maintain their tax-exempt status. A watchdog group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is asking the IRS to “investigate the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for engaging in prohibited political activity in violation of its protected tax status.”

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation has filed a complaint with the IRS about the activities of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

The bishops under investigation told Catholic laypersons they would go to hell if they voted for President Barack Obama. Billy Graham’s group ran newspaper ads in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and others, pressing voters to vote for candidates who support, “the biblical definition of marriage between a man and woman” and who protect “the sanctity of life.” There was only one such presidential candidate and that was Mitt Romney.

In addition, the San Francisco Chronicle online reports that before election day this year some, “1,600 religious leaders around the country ... talked politics from the pulpit, in an organized movement challenging a 1954 federal law that bans churches from supporting candidates during worship services. The Pulpit Freedom Sunday movement, organized by a Christian legal group in Arizona called Alliance Defending Freedom, encouraged pastors to ‘preach a biblically based sermon regarding candidates and the election without fearing that the IRS will investigate or punish the church,’ according to the group’s website.”

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