The New York Times and is editor-at-large for Tablet. He also reports for The Atlantic, The Nation, This American Life, and elsewhere. Two weeks ago, with a decision in Obergefell v. Mike Lee of Utah introduced the First Amendment Defense Act, gay marriage and religion essay ensures that religious institutions won’t lose their tax exemptions if they don’t support same-sex marriage.
So far, the Bob Jones reasoning hasn’t been extended to other kinds of discrimination, but someday it could be. I don’t, however, like his solution. And he’s not going to like mine. Rather than try to rescue tax-exempt status for organizations that dissent from settled public policy on matters of race or sexuality, we need to take a more radical step. It’s time to abolish, or greatly diminish, their tax-exempt statuses. The Brief Newsletter Sign up to receive the top stories you need to know right now. The federal revenue acts of 1909, 1913, and 1917 exempted nonprofits from the corporate excise and income taxes at the same time that they allowed people to deduct charitable contributions from their incomes.
In other words, they gave tax-free status to the income of, and to the income donated to, nonprofits. First, the religious exemption has forced the IRS to decide what’s a religion, and thus has entangled church and state in the worst way. Since the world’s great religion scholars can’t agree on what a religion is, it’s absurd to ask a bunch of accountants, no matter how well-meaning. On the other hand, the IRS famously caved and awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. David Miscavige, lives like a pasha. Indeed, many clergy have mid-six-figure salaries — many university presidents, seven-figure salaries — and the IRS doesn’t trouble their tax-exempt status. We’re also subsidizing wealthy organizations sitting in the middle of poor towns.
Meanwhile, although nonprofits can’t endorse political candidates, they can be quite partisan and still thrive on the public dole, in the form of tax exemptions and deductions. Conservatives are footing the bill for taxes that Planned Parenthood, a nonprofit, doesn’t pay — while liberals are making up revenue lost from the National Rifle Association. Defenders of tax exemptions and deductions argue that if we got rid of them charitable giving would drop. It surely would, although how much, we can’t say.
But of course government revenue would go up, and that money could be used to, say, house the homeless and feed the hungry. We’d have fewer church soup kitchens — but countries that truly care about poverty don’t rely on churches to run soup kitchens. Exemption advocates also point out that churches would be squeezed out of high-property-value areas. But if it’s important to the people of Fifth Avenue to have a synagogue like Emanu-El or an Episcopal church like St. Thomas in their midst, they should pay full freight for it.
But when that day comes, it will be long overdue. Supporters of same-sex marriage celebrate outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, on June 26, 2015. Gay rights supporters celebrate after the U. Supreme Court ruled that the U. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry, outside the Supreme Court building in Washington, June 26, 2015.
John Becker, right, hugs his friend and fellow LGBT advocate Paul Guequierre, outside the Supreme Court in Washington on June 26, 2015. TIME Ideas hosts the world’s leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice. Enter the characters you see below Sorry, we just need to make sure you’re not a robot.