When we think of churches being tax exempt, we think of the actual place where the congregation meets to worship, not church owned property that has nothing to do with worship. We certainly don’t think of non-worshiping groups that claim to be religious organizations as being worthy of having tax exempt status. And rightfully so. Why should churches and religious organizations be allowed to skip out on paying taxes for anything and everything? But that’s what some Republicans in the Arizona General Assembly want.
Under a new bill currently being pushed in the Arizona House known as HB 2774, any self-described religious organization or any church could be exempt from paying taxes on just about any property.
The Arizona Daily Star reports that “The measure would remove worship as the central criteria for religious groups qualifying for property-tax exemptions. Under the expansion, religious associations or institutions would be protected from property taxes so long as the property isn’t used for profit… Critics say the measure would allow groups posing as religious organizations to expand their for-profit land holdings on the cheap. Under the measure, any group that calls itself religious could sit on undeveloped lots for years without paying taxes.”
The bill is sponsored by Republican state Rep. Justin Olson. Olson believes the government shouldn’t be determining what constitutes a church for tax purposes.
During a committee hearing on the bill, Olson said “It’s a delicate issue when the government has to determine whether a church is a church. It’s a situation that I don’t think any county assessor wants to find themselves in when it’s a tough call.”
In other words, Olson thinks that instead of government looking into what church property or religious organizations should be rightfully taxed, government should just exempt all religious property from taxation. Of course this means churches, especially megachurches, could shield any property in the church to avoid taxes, and religious groups that have nothing to do with worship could avoid taxes as well.
Take John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas for example. After the San Antonio Express-News reported on Hagee’s $1 million plus income in 2001, Hagee reorganized his TV station (Global Evangelism Television) as a church (Grace Church of San Antonio Churches) to shelter tax records. Hagee now shelters all of his assets, including an 8,000 acre ranch, in the Cornerstone Church.
If HB 2774 were to pass in Arizona, so-called holy men could hide all their assets in the church as well and evade paying their fair share of taxes. Any organization could claim to be a religious group in order to escape their patriotic duty to pay their taxes. They could shelter land, cars, buildings, homes, etc…all in the name of the church and get away with it.
Arizona Republicans are currently cutting funding for programs that help students, the poor, children, single mothers, and women, yet they have no problem allowing churches and religious groups to hide assets and evade taxation. These are the very taxes that could be used to pay for the funding Republicans are slashing.
The bill has stalled in the House for now, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be passed in the near future. One thing is clear, with all the billions upon billions of dollars in property and cash that many churches are rolling in, and the fact that many of these churches are involving themselves in partisan politics, the time to start taxing them is long overdue. No church should be a glorified tax shelter used for tax evasion.