Should we be taxing our churches? Here’s one good reason why.

 

The honorable New York State Department of Taxation and Finance firmly resolved a question for the ages last week when that august body ruled yoga a religion.

Yoga studios need collect no sales tax, intoned the wise men of Albany.

My own experience as a devotee of casual acquaintanceship with yoga practitioners tells me that most people in these parts do yoga for fitness. But the taxing authorities agreed with State Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal that, as the AP put it, “yoga’s main objective is spiritual balance.”

I’ve watched countless people doing yoga – in public parks, on television, even in my own home – and mostly what they appear to be striving for is physical balance, along with mental relaxation perhaps. But I’m no yoga expert. What I do know is that the New York ruling is in line with the American principle that “spiritual” (whatever that means) institutions are exempt from taxes.

Churches own oodles of property but pay no property tax. Now yoga studios don’t have to collect sales tax. Most aggravating of all, parking spaces in front of churches on busy city streets remain unclaimable by us civilians, even though 99.9% of the time those ratfink churches are making no use of them.

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. And maybe I’m even willing to grant churches a few free parking spots, if in turn they’re going to run soup kitchens or even put out some ropa gratis once in a while. Recent economic developments show us, however, that while America remains staunch in its determination to excuse its churches not only from taxation but from the oversight that other tax-exempt organizations must labor under, such is not the case everywhere.

The very cradle of our civilization, hapless Greece – point man of the Eurozone’s excruciating economic crisis, and international champion of tax-collection failure – does not (entirely) exempt its national church, the Greek Orthodox, from taxes. The august doges of that Church, who perhaps breathe the same rarefied Olympian air as do the venerable tax gods of Albany, have been forced to defend it from accusatory reports emanating from places like the much less mature civilization of Londinium.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, financially strapped Italy is demanding huge property tax payments from the Vatican, which has been exempt for some years.

The Pope might have a case to make. After all, tax exemption for church property goes back to pre-Christian times. The Book of Genesis (47:26) records: “And Joseph made it a law over the land of Egypt unto this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth part; except the land of the priests only, which became not Pharaoh’s.”

On the other hand, in Europe it’s harder to be deemed a church than it is in the glorious old USA. (Scientology, anyone?) And at first glance that might seem, as does so much else in Europe, much more sensible than what we have in the States. But take the long view, and it looks more like a distinction without a difference. Because when you get right down to it, isn’t one cluster of superstitions just like another?

So should we be taxing our churches? Yes, and here’s one big reason why: it would show us once and for all just where they’re really doing exemption-worthy good works, and expose them where they aren’t. Then we can talk good works from a baseline of actual knowledge, and grant tax exemptions only where they’re really due.