Monday, September 22, 2008

Do Tax Exempt Churches Cause Regressive Taxation in Poor Communities?

An interesting article in yesterday's New York Times discusses the effect of "too many" churches per square mile, particularly in poor communities whose revitalization efforts depend on attracting a tax paying business core community:

RESIDENTS here have long wished for a thriving downtown where they could shop and work — a business district that would also help shoulder their heavy school taxes. Instead, there are exactly one supermarket and one bank, zero drugstores and nary a 7-Eleven or Starbucks in sight.  What Roosevelt has in abundance, however, is churches. By one unofficial count, 68 houses of worship have taken root in this small community, which is a bit over a mile in width and in length and has a population of about 16,000.

I've often wondered and, in fact, bemoaned the fact that the poorest communities suffer the same irony.  Too many churches competing with too many liquor stores or cigarette billboards.  I'm not a property or constitutional scholar guy but sometimes I wonder whether residents of poor and dying communities ought not to picket or protest whenever either new establishment adds to the great redundancy of such outlets in poor communities.  I have even discussed with my own pastor why, in some instances there are four, five or six churches all within 300 yards of each other and all sorrouned by abject poverty.  He was loathe, to say the least, to suggest agreement with the idea that there can ever be "too many churches."  After all, the Bible says "where any two are gathered . . .  Still, in nearly every poor community there are plenty of places to worship -- too many of which are so oblivous to the plight  of the people right outside their doors that they have become unfortunately irrelevant to the community in which they sit.  What is needed are places of production and other tax and job generating outlets, perhaps staffed by people who attend the fewer (but still sufficient number) of churches.  But this, of course, is a taboo subject easily capable of distortion, as noted by the city leaders described in the article:

The issue is not religion but the effect of tax-exempt churches displacing property tax-paying businesses, thus shifting more of the property tax burden onto homeowners. Countywide, the percentage of tax-exempt property is 28 percent. For Roosevelt, the figure is 34 percent.

I would be remiss by ending this editorial without first pointing out that it is the proliferation of tax exempt properties in poor communities (where land is cheap, and getting cheaper as the result of that very proliferation) not necessarily the proliferation of tax exempt churches.  But as the article points out, at least implicitly, the phenomenon seems especially inappropriate when it involves churches.


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