Church and Society

Two articles of interest to Christians, partly because they present a perspective we don’t see within the church. Once upon a time, the value of the church within society was just assumed, and within the church, that’s probably still the case. But society is increasingly asking why it has to carry us.

The first article looks at church planting in Boston:

They call it “church planting.” Missionary preachers create and house new congregations, often in inexpensive or state-subsidized locales. … One relatively new tool of the church planting strategy is the public school system. In public schools across the country, the new evangelists have discovered facilities that can be made available to churches at relatively low or no cost—except, presumably, to local taxpayers. In some places, including New York City, the churches have not paid any rent at all.

Notice the assumption that the church is benefiting unfairly from taxpayer-subsidized rent. If I had commercial space I wanted to rent to a church, I’d see it that way. But consider it from the school district’s point of view: those buildings aren’t being used on Sundays anyway, so why not rent them out, collect the money, and whatever’s left after the additional maintenance expense, helps lower costs to the taxpayer.

But while the article talks about the taxpayer, the tone is clearly that of someone who wants to keep the church out of schools, even when there aren’t any children in them:

On March 30, the Supreme Court declined to review a Second Circuit decision that upheld a standing ban by the city Board of Education on the use of public schools for religious services. But the matter appears to be far from over. The right-wing legal advocacy groups backing the case have vowed to continue the fight, and their allies in city and state government are exploring ways to undermine the DOE policy of keeping church and school separate.

The second article, in the Alaska Dispatch News, explains how the city of Anchorage loses millions in tax revenues due to property tax exemptions for seniors, hospitals, charities, and, yes, religious organizations:

The report outlines the cost to taxpayers in simple terms, starting with the following analogy: If dinner for 10 costs $500 (revenue), each would pay $50 (tax). However, if four people are exempt, dinner for the remaining six-taxpaying diners increases 67 percent to $83.33. Whether you are the diner or taxpayer, you might want to know why you are paying more. Why are the other four diners excused from paying their share of the dinner? On what basis are taxpayers given tax exemptions?

The situation is complicated (in Anchorage) because of a local congregation with an unusual number of tax-exempt properties, and a pastor with polarizing positions on a number of issues.

What is the argument for exempting churches from property taxes? It used to be that churches provided benefits that outweighed the costs. That consensus is gone.

I think the first article is misguided. The taxpayer benefits from maximizing the utilization of assets (assuming the rental fees, less the additional upkeep, brings in more money than leaving the assets idle). But the second article points to a genuine taxpayer subsidy for religious institutions (among others). Members of churches who are concerned about their public witness should support taxation at the same rate that similar properties are taxed.

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