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Jul 21st 2014

Are Churches “Fake” Charities?

Jon Huntsman Sr. has given away about $1.5 billion to worthy causes – about 80% of his total wealth. He is also spending $200 million building Huntsman Springs, a golf resort and nature reserve in Idaho that will donate all proceeds of real estate sold to his family’s charitable foundation. But neither of these totals include his strict tithing to the Mormon church of 10% of everything he has ever earned.

“My philanthropy is not borne out of my faith,” he says. “They require 10% tithing. I don’t consider that to be philanthropy and I don’t consider it to be part of my philanthropic giving. I consider it as club dues.

“People who put money in the church basket and people who go to church and pay the pastor: that isn’t real philanthropy, that’s just like you belong to a country club. You pay your dues to belong to that church so you pay your tithing or whatever it is. I’ve never added that into my philanthropy in any way because I just think it’s a part of a person’s life.”

Giving To Your Church Doesn’t Count: Jon Huntsman Sr. And Twitter’s Biz Stone On New Philanthropy (Forbes).

It is initially very perplexing to me to hear someone put the philanthropic value of tithing to one’s church — in particular a church of mostly unpaid, lay ministry like the church to which Jon Huntsman belongs — on par with paying membership dues to a country club. For one thing, with respect to the LDS church, tithing is voluntary and (with the exception of our temples, which many members probably do not use more than a few times a year anyway), no secular rights, access, or benefits are lost by not paying a tithe. Most other members have no idea whether one pays tithing or not, and regardless, there is no economic “status” connected with tithe paying because everyone pays a different amount. Even the “widow’s mite” can constitute a full tithe:

And Jesus sat over against the treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much.

And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.

And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury:

For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living.

Mark 12:41-44.

But secondly and most importantly, the federal government places special value on religious organizations, as discussed in Justice William Brennan’s concurrence in Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, a 1970 US Supreme Court case. The case is about real property taxes, but the excerpt quoted below is instructive:

Government has two basic secular purposes for granting real property tax exemptions to religious organizations. First, these organizations are exempted because they, among a range of other private, nonprofit organizations contribute to the well-being of the community in a variety of nonreligious ways, and thereby bear burdens that would otherwise either have to be met by general taxation, or be left undone, to the detriment of the community. See, for example, 1938 N. Y. Constitutional Convention, Report of the Committee on Taxation, Doc. No. 2, p. 2. Thus, New York exempts “[r]eal property owned by a corporation or association organized exclusively for the moral or mental improvement of men and women, or for religious, bible, tract, charitable, benevolent, missionary, hospital, infirmary, educational, public playground, scientific, literary, bar association, medical society, library, patriotic, historical or cemetery purposes, for the enforcement of laws relating to children or animals, or for two or more such purposes…” N. Y. Real Prop. Tax Law § 420, subd. 1 (Supp. 1969-1970).

Appellant seeks to avoid the force of this secular purpose of the exemptions by limiting his challenge to “exemptions from real property taxation to religious organizations on real property used exclusively for religious purposes.” Appellant assumes, apparently, that church-owned property is used for exclusively religious purposes if it does not house a hospital, orphanage, week-day school, or the like. Any assumption that a church building itself is used for exclusively religious activities, however, rests on a simplistic view of ordinary church operations. As the appellee’s brief cogently observes, “the public welfare activities and the sectarian activities of religious institutions are…intertwined… Often a particular church will use the same personnel, facilities and source of funds to carry out both its secular and religious activities.” Thus, the same people who gather in church facilities for religious worship and study may return to these facilities to participate in Boy Scout activities, to promote antipoverty causes, to discuss public issues, or to listen to chamber music. Accordingly, the funds used to maintain the facilities as a place for religious worship and study also maintain them as a place for secular activities beneficial to the community as a whole. Even during formal worship services, churches frequently collect the funds used to finance their secular operations and make decisions regarding their nature.

Second, government grants exemptions to religious organizations because they uniquely contribute to the pluralism of American society by their religious activities. Government may properly include religious institutions among the variety of private, nonprofit groups that receive tax exemptions, for each group contributes to the diversity of association, viewpoint, and enterprise essential to a vigorous, pluralistic society. See Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U. S. App. D. C. 371, 373, 249 F. 2d 127, 129 (1957). To this end, New York extends its exemptions not only to religious and social service organizations but also to scientific, literary, bar, library, patriotic, and historical groups, and generally to institutions “organized exclusively for the moral or mental improvement of men and women.” The very breadth of this scheme of exemptions negates any suggestion that the State intends to single out religious organizations for special preference. The scheme is not designed to inject any religious activity into a nonreligious context, as was the case with school prayers. No particular activity of a religious organization —for example, the propagation of its beliefs—is specially promoted by the exemptions. They merely facilitate the existence of a broad range of private, nonprofit organizations, among them religious groups, by leaving each free to come into existence, then to flourish or wither, without being burdened by real property taxes.

Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York, 397 U.S. 664 (1970), Brennan, J., concurring.

Churches are designed to provide temporal and spiritual support to the people in a community, with an emphasis on the less fortunate in that community. Country clubs are designed to provide fun places to hang out for rich people and their kids.

I admire Jon Huntsman for his philanthropy. His generosity has helped more people than I could ever dream of. This post is not meant to be critical of him, but I wonder why he chose to analogize his church donations to country club dues. The two are not remotely similar. In the context of whether contributions to a church are charitable donations, the comparison to country club dues sounds somewhat stupid and even insulting. It also potentially gives more fodder to the people that want to do away with the tax exempt status of churches.

For example, this disgustingly oblivious petition that has 375 supporters: Petitioning End Church Tax Exempt Status, Faith Based Politics: Religions and churches should pay a fair share:

The money parishioners donate to churches should ethically go to indiscriminately feed the poor and offer low income people healthcare and housing. (isn’t that the true meaning of charity?) It should not go to greedy, hateful and glutenous right wing media houses and fanatical senators to promote their anti woman and anti homosexual religious agendas. LGBT are people and citizens too. Why do homosexuals pay government taxes that in-turn our government gives to a church that is trying to erode the homosexual’s and women’s person-hood and social equality? This is the bait and switch tactic. Clergy use the church and their sad Jesus story allure of religion to entice their followers and the government into believing the church actually cares about the down trodden of society. Then these churches send the money off to their political cronies.

It goes on, and it gets more ranty.

Then there’s this story out of Nebraska from January of this year, where fruitcake Ernie Chambers, who in 2007 filed a lawsuit against God, introduced a bill to do away with the state’s property tax exemption for religious organizations:

Atheist Lawmaker Introduces Bill Ending Church Property Tax Exemption; Says Jesus Would Approve.

So, is Huntsman right?

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