Sunday, October 16, 2005

Church and State: Taxation

From time to time I find myself mulling over the relationship between the church and civil government. In keeping with this morning's reading of "Render unto Caesar..." I found myself thinking about taxation while walking the dog this afternoon.

In Canada much church property is exempt from property taxes. Also, clergy housing is allowed as tax-free income (in most cases, it is more complicated in the case of clergy couples). And in Ontario a manse/rectory within a certain distance of the church and inhabited by the local clergy is only taxed at 50% of its value. These factors may well keep the doors open at many struggling churches -- imagine having to pay property tax on the massive downtown churches that not only have a large building but are on prime land and so would have an immense value (whether it is good stewardship to hold on to all that value in real estate is a whole other question). But I often wonder is that a good thing?

I have often heard the arguement that because of our tax-exempt status the churches should be less politically active. I don't buy the argument but it does get made, on both sides of the 49th parallel. I also wonder if the church isn't getting a bit of a free ride. What do we do that "deserves" these tax exemptions? There was a time when churches provided many services that are now funded by tax dollars. BUt now? Other than some attempts to pick up thjose who fall through the cracks...

Is it time for churches to see their role differently? Is it time that clergy housing, for one, is no longer tax exempt--with clergy salaries adjusted accordingly? I think it definitely is time on that one. If nothing else, it makes clergy salaries look much more accurate (my salary is $29 000 but with housing and everything my actual income is about $40 000, more if housing was taxable and the salary adjusted to cover off the tax difference). Is it time to have the churches pay property tax? Not only would this be a windfall for many governments but it would push the churches too. Maybe then we would talk seriously about the ethics of holding such vast amounts of real estate. MAybe then we could honestly say that we are contributing more to the welfare of our society. And maybe then there wouldn't be that small voice in the back telling us to not get political because of our tax exempt status. Not that many of us listen to that voice but maybe we need to get rid of it for good.

Just some idle thoughts while walking the dog on a glorious sunny warm October day.

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