How much money does the U.S. government forgo by not taxing religious institutions? According to a University of Tampa professor, perhaps as much as $71 billion a year.
Ryan Cragun, an assistant professor of sociology, and two students examined U.S. tax laws to estimate the total cost of tax exemptions for religious institutions — on property, donations, business enterprises, capital gains and “parsonage allowances,” which permit clergy to deduct housing costs…
If history is a guide, the Free Inquiry article and any call for tax reform it may engender are not likely to have much effect. Since the 1950s, there have been several attempts to quantify religious tax exemptions — all of them wildly varied in their conclusions — and only a handful of legal challenges to those exemptions. Most were unsuccessful…
States bypass an estimated $26.2 billion per year by not requiring religious institutions to pay property taxes.
This seems like a lot of money but here are a few thoughts about this:
1. You would need to put the cost of these exemptions versus other areas of the tax code in order to know how this compares. For example, would repealing the mortgage interest deduction bring in more money? The study itself makes some of these comparisons:
To put this into perspective, the combined total of government subsidies to agriculture in the United States in 2009 was estimated to be $180.8 billion.38 Religions receive at least 40 percent of the subsidy that agriculture does in the United States. Another way to illustrate the size of the subsidy may be to illustrate how much tax revenue would increase at the state level if religious institutions had to pay property taxes. In Florida, where the state government’s budget was $69.1 billion in 2011, the amount of tax revenue lost from subsidizing religious property was $2.2 billion or 3 percent of the state budget. The additional revenue would have mostly prevented the $1.1 billion cut to firefighter and police retirement plans and the $1.3 billion cut to public schools.39
So is this a battle worth fighting instead of fighting agriculture subsidies?
2. I think we may see more calls for things like this during this period of economic troubles. The federal government as well as state and local governments need money so they are looking for ways to find “easy” money.
3. It could be interesting to look at how this affects local municipalities, particularly ones with more religious congregations that consequently don’t get the tax dollars they might if that land was occupied by homeowners or businesses. For example, a community like Wheaton, Illinois has a large number of churches (including a claim that the suburb has “more churches per capita than any other town in America”) and could have more tax revenue if that land was put to other uses.