How much do U.S. religious organizations not pay in t

The spark was allegations concerning the wealth of celeb pastor Joel Osteen. But it surely wasn’t the primary time that “tax the church buildings” has circulated. In truth it’s slogan that lengthy predates social media—Frank Zappa was singing it again in 1981 and Mark Twain expressed similar sentiments many a long time earlier than that.

As a sociologist of religion, I’ve lengthy been in why religious establishments are exempt from sure taxes and what which means in potential misplaced income for the U.S. In 2012, I examined this subject and estimated that in whole, church buildings in the U.S. get out of paying round $71 billion in taxes yearly.

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Auditing the home of God

Most religious organizations are exempt from a wide range of taxes that people and companies are required to pay, like earnings and property taxes. These exemptions started formally in 1913 at the federal level, although there’s a much longer historical past of exempting charitable, academic, scientific and religious establishments from taxation.

You will need to notice that religion organizations could be exempt from paying taxes solely based mostly on their religious work, not for every other charitable endeavors. Church buildings and religious organizations—which the IRS loosely defines as entities organized for “religious functions” or for “advancing faith”—are listed separately from other tax-exempt entities and charities and could be topic to totally different guidelines. Some religious congregations do interact in aid efforts for the poor and needy, however many do not. And of those that do, many give a very small amount of their revenue for such charitable purposes.

Moreover, not like charities, church buildings and different locations of worship are not required to report any financial information to the IRS. The IRS encourages church buildings to do so, however they’re not required to. And it may be an onerous course of for the IRS to achieve approval to audit locations of worship, requiring prior evidence of abuse of tax exemptions reported by a high-level Treasury employee.

In lots of locations in the U.S., earnings is taxed on the native, state and federal ranges. Religious establishments do not pay any earnings tax at any degree of presidency. Moreover, individuals and corporations that donate to religions can deduct those expenses—as soon as they’re above a certain quantity—from their taxable earnings.

Heavenly financial institution accounts

Religious organizations additionally pay no taxes on their investments, whether or not it’s curiosity they earn on their investments or in capital beneficial properties—the elevated worth of inventory from when the inventory was bought. As such, they’re able to make investments extra income in the inventory market or different funding devices however pay no taxes on the corresponding earnings. One Fortune 500 firm, Thrivent, originated as a monetary companies organizations for Missouri Synod Lutherans in 1902, after which for all Lutherans in the Nineteen Sixties. It was known as Thrivent Monetary for Lutherans as much as 2014, but it surely now manages the investments of members of many religious congregations as nicely.

Religious endowments and funding accounts whole in the hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S.. Simply how much cash religious organizations have is tough to inform, as church buildings are not required to report such info. Nevertheless, the net worth of some well-known pastors, like Kenneth Copeland and Pat Robertson, are estimated to run into the a whole lot of thousands and thousands of {dollars}.

Religious organizations pay no sales tax. Because of this, when representatives of a religious entity make a purchase order—workplace provides, automobiles or journey, for instance—they’re exempted from regardless of the native gross sales tax is in that space. They also pay no income taxes for businesses they own, if they will present that the enterprise furthers the goals of the faith. For instance, a bookstore that sells religious books can be exempt.


Religious organizations might pay employment taxes for his or her workers. Nevertheless, there are exceptions constructed into the tax code right here as nicely. Clergy and members of religious orders are the one residents who can decide out of paying Self-Employed Contributions Act taxes, that are 15.3% taxes on earnings for self-employed people that pay for Social Safety and different federal advantages.

If religious clergy decide out of the SECA tax, they can’t obtain Social Safety advantages. Clergy may also deduct the upkeep costs of their “parsonage“—their house or condo—from their taxable earnings.

Lastly, religious organizations pay no property taxes. Property taxes are primarily used in the U.S. to fund native companies like firefighting, emergency medical companies and police departments, in addition to faculties and different infrastructure, all of which religious organizations use.

Some municipalities make info on property taxes publicly out there, so it’s comparatively simple to work out the price of this tax exemption to native communities.

I checked out Manatee County in Florida for example. Manatee County is a midsize county in Florida with simply over 300,000 residents residing in a combination of rural and concrete areas. Recent data means that Manatee County is near the nationwide common in relation to the religious make-up of its residents. Lastly, Florida property values and the price of residing rank virtually precisely in the center of all U.S. states, making Manatee County a reasonably consultant illustration of the nation usually.

Manatee County’s public portal signifies which properties are categorised as church buildings and are due to this fact exempt from “advert valorem” taxes—these based mostly on the assessed worth of the property—and different property taxes. By downloading the “simply market values” for the 360 properties categorised as having a religious exemption, I used to be in a position to work out that their mixed worth was $406.7 million. In the event that they paid the usual property taxes required of each business and residential properties in Manatee County, they’d add $8.5 million to the tax income of the county yearly. With the county’s finances at $740million, a further $8.5 million works out to be about 1.1% of the full. This, according to the 2022 Manatee County budget proposal, can be sufficient to cowl the constructing of all three newly proposed emergency medical companies stations in the county, together with upgrades of EMS gear and its 911 service.

Taxing the ‘infidel and the atheist’

Projecting these numbers out to all the U.S. inhabitants is difficult. The quantity and proportion of religiously exempt properties varies by county; property values and tax charges range throughout the nation, and the worth of religiously exempt properties varies as nicely.

But when one assumed that the exempt taxes are uniform throughout the nation based mostly on the data derived from Manatee County—which, to be clear, they’re not—native and state governments forgo roughly $6.9 billion in tax income yearly by exempting religions from paying property taxes.

That is simply an estimate—it’s practically unattainable to know the precise quantity, and it might be that the true determine is even increased. If church buildings and different locations of worship had been required to file annual monetary stories, researchers may use that info to judge the monetary well being of religious entities in the U.S.

It will additionally give a clearer understanding as to how much, in Twain’s words, “the infidel and the atheist and the person with out faith are taxed to make up the deficit in the general public earnings” attributable to the exemption for church buildings.

With such info extra available, the general public would discover it much simpler to debate the deserves of a hashtag marketing campaign like #TaxTheChurches.


Ryan Cragun is a professor of ssociology on the University of Tampa