The Taxman Cometh
Behold the future, courtesy of European welfare states running out of other people’s money:
Alcala de Henares, Spain—Cash-strapped officials in Europe are looking for a way to ease their financial burden by upending centuries of tradition and seeking to tap one of the last untouched sources of wealth: the Catholic Church.
Thousands of public officials who have seen the financial crisis hit their budgets are chipping away at the various tax breaks and privileges the church has enjoyed for centuries.
Now, along come officials like Ricardo Rubio.
Rubio, a city council member in Alcala, is leading an effort to impose a tax on all church property used for non-religious purposes. The financial impact on the Catholic Church could be devastating. As one of the largest landowners in Spain — with holdings that include schools, homes, parks, sports fields and restaurants — the church could owe up to 3 billion euros in taxes each year.
“We want to make a statement that the costs of the crisis should be borne equally by every person and institution,” said Rubio, a 36-year-old former accountant in his first term in office.
Read the whole thing at the Washington Post. Now, here’s why this is coming to a town, city, state, or country near you, America: there is nothing in the Constitution prohibiting the taxation of churches.
But wait, you say: churches have always been exempt from taxes in the United States. That’s in the First Amendment!
No, it isn’t. Here’s why the churches have been tax-exempt: the First Amendment mandates, in some form or another, church-state separation. It doesn’t matter whether your favorite theory of this is that it prohibits an official state church, or that it prohibits putting “In God We Trust” on currency. The point is that the state is not to muck around in the church’s business. (How far the prohibition goes in the other direction is an open question, and not germane to the issue at hand.)
Now, the power to tax is the power to destroy, and it has been recognized from the beginning of the republic that if the state wanted to interfere with religion, the best way to do so would be through taxation. So tax exemption became the universally agreed upon method to prevent this from happening.
In many sectors of American society, however, this insight into the nature of taxation has been lost, and for many Americans it is now simply the price of doing business, no different from paying the grocer’s price for a head of lettuce. The government does things we think it should do; we pay the tax man, and think no more about it. But Europe has shown us, as if there should ever have been any doubt, that the tax man is the most voracious of predators, and eventually, having run out of other ways to feed, he will turn his sights on those who have, to his mind, not been paying their “fair share.”
In addition to curbing the power the state would have over religion, the tax exemption as it has come to be practiced is meant to also avoid the problem of entanglement and interference. Look at it this way: when you pay your federal income tax, you don’t just write a check to the IRS. You send them reams of information. They know in precise terms the nature of your economic relationship with your employer; how many homes you own, if you do; whether you are married or not; how much you give to charity; how much you spend to do your job; whether you gamble, and whether you win or lose; whether you run a business on the side; whether you are furthering your education; and a host of other details about your personal life. Now, translate that into church terms. Though they are periodically reformed and simplified, the natural tendency of tax codes is to get more complex. Imagine a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple having to deal with the kind of paperwork, record keeping, and tax lawyering that plagues the average business. Many small assemblies—which make up the majority of all religious organizations in America—would simply close up shop as the burden became too great to deal with. So even if the taxes themselves were not crushing, the regulatory regime eventually would be.
I’m not suggesting that this is going to happen tomorrow, or the next day. But if this is happening in Western Europe, and is happening not because fascism or communism have come to power, but because governments are broke, it may be closer than we realize in the United States, especially as the number of secularists grow and their liberal allies lose their interest in preserving freedom of religion. And that’s ultimately what it’s about—not money, but the freedom to serve God in the manner to which He has called us.
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