A “Hail Mary Pass”, as everyone knows, is a very long forward pass made in sheer desperation with only a small chance of success, usually thrown at the end of a football game. Faced with catastrophic and huge budget deficits, American politicians at the state and city level should seriously consider lobbing their own
: Tax God, Tax Religion. Hail Mary Pass
All of these proposals and measures seem to fall "disproportionately on the backs of the middle class, the poor, the elderly, schoolchildren, college students and inner-city residents, while leaving largely unscathed the wealthy and most businesses". OK, so why not tax dumb, fat, happy and rich tax targets, God and Religion?
But before taxing God, religion’s historic context should be considered. After twelve years of debate, our Constitution was finally adopted in 1787. The Bill of Rights was added in 1794. These two documents delineate the powers of government. Supposedly a secular nation, they prohibit “the making of no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. Nada, niente, rien, niśta and nothing more.
Religion is and was a major political player. Seizing on Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion that “the power to tax involves the power to destroy”, religion promoted itself to a position of privilege. Religion secured advantageous tax treatments, on both the federal and local levels, relieving it of any burden of contributing to the general welfare. Religion assured that its secular wealth would be protected, and not taxed, allowing it to pursue its own agenda.
Religion flourished and continues to flourish. It built temples, cathedrals and churches; magnificent, opulent and expensive places of worship; and some not so grand; but all to be found in every nook and cranny of our country. It played and continues to play a major role in education. Religion gave its leaders a bully pulpit to preach and to advocate. Religion is the very embodiment of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech, assembly and the right to petition the government for redress. A truly commendable achievement. But it did so on the cheap, for free.
On the other hand, religion today has a negative impact on our society. It has become embroiled and mired in politics. This not to say that such political advocacy and involvement is in any way improper. It is to be encouraged since it is constitutionally protected. But one asks, at what price? Not on the taxpayer's dime, says I.
There is no rational reason why religion is relieved from the burden of paying taxes. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York's magnificent gothic marble edifice, enjoys the protection of the police and the fire department. It benefits from mass transit that ensures attendance by worshippers. All aspects of today’s infrastructure and today’s federal, state and local government services benefit lay institutions and religious institutions alike. Yet the lay institutions are taxed, as they should be, while the religious ones are not, which they should be.
The first step would be to tax religious real estate, now exempt. This would fairly spread the tax burden and surely help the budget deficit. Cities such as New Haven and Hartford have long raised the issue that purely secular institutions, such as colleges and universities, share in the cost of municipal services. Why not religious institutions?
The second step would be to tax religious income on an equitable basis with other secular entities. Income, after all, is income no matter who makes it. We tax the National Football League and Major League Baseball, why not the Roman Catholic Church? After all, they both entertain the masses. This would free religion to advocate and become politically active without government interference. Of course, the level and efficacy of such activity would be constrained by the availability of after tax dollars. To put it rather vulgarly, religion should pay its fair share for state provided services and put its money where its mouth is, for the privilege of exercising its First Amendment rights. The budget crisis may well be solved.