The doctrine of Separation has been a mainstay of those who favor democracy and a free society for nearly 200 years.
Many civil libertarians maintain that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution sets up a “wall of separation”
between government and religion. They say that government should keep “hands-off” religion—religious laissez-faire,
so to speak.
government being the kind of creature that it is, is this democratic ideal really possible? As long as the government raises
its revenues coercively through taxation, isn’t it inevitably going to interfere with people’s practice of religion,
one way or another?
Consider the alternatives: either the federal government, let’s say, passes laws which treat churches in a special
way, tax-wise—or it passes laws which tax churches in the same way as every other individual or group in society. Either
government’s tax code gives churches a special exemption, or it treats them just like everyone else.
If government exempts churches, the first question that naturally arises is: which churches? And who decides?
If only one church is given the special tax-exempt status, this amounts to its being set up as the “official”
or “established” church. All the rest of the churches are penalized for being different. Religious freedom exists
only for the state-approved church. The other churches are not free.
Some may object that everyone is still free to believe what he or she chooses, even if their church is taxed
into pauperdom. This is true, but irrelevant. Religious freedom includes not just freedom to select the contents of one’s
religious beliefs, but also, more importantly, the practicing of one’s beliefs, living according to one’s
beliefs in the real world. As such, religious freedom is inseparable from the freedom to use one’s resources however
one chooses in the service of one’s beliefs—so long, of course, as one recognizes that others have the same rights
and one does not use force or fraud against them. And when a church’s resources are taxed away, the members of its congregation
are being denied their religious freedom, pure and simple.
This used to be a major issue and a major problem 200 years ago. To add insult to injury, not only did people of other
faiths have to pay taxes that people of the official church did not, but in some cases, their tax dollars went to pay salaries
and expenses of officials of the official church! Thanks to the First Amendment, this kind of blatant subsidy of one church
at the expense of all others no longer exists.
Today we have what is called a “pluralistic” system. Tax-exempt status is given not to just one privileged
church, but to all legitimate churches. But what is a “legitimate” church? Who decides? It varies from
state to state, but generally speaking, the bureaucrats in the tax system and the judges in the tax courts do the deciding.
You apply for your tax-exempt status, and if you don’t have hymnbooks or an Asian refugee program, they deny your application
and sock it to you with the tax code.
In recent years, with the oppressive increases in taxation at all levels of government and the rise of the anti-tax
libertarian movement, there have been a number of court cases dealing with churches which appear to many to have been set
up purely for tax-shelter purposes. Libertarians and others have seen their tax dollars going to support domestic and foreign
policies antagonistic to their beliefs, and they have seized upon the do-it-yourself church as a way to channel their resources
in directions they approve of.
The question is not whether some “churches” are set up purely for tax avoidance purposes. Undoubtedly,
some are. The real problem arises in trying to decide which are and which aren’t. Libertarians, nature-worshippers,
Buddhists, Unitarians, atheists, and others have the same right to “churchify” their beliefs as do Catholics,
Jews, and Church of Christ people. Yet, the bureaucrats and judges in the tax system—who are often devout believers
in one of the established, “respectable” churches—don’t see it this way. To them, your moral and philosophical
and metaphysical beliefs don’t deserve tax-exempt status, if they don’t include belief in God, eternal life, and
(preferably, in the South, at least) Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
On the other hand, there are also some tax officials and judges who do recognize the equal right of non-Judeo-Christian
churches to be granted tax-exempt status, so long as they have some kind of non-trivial doctrine and they meet and function
like a congregation in a way which is at least generally similar to the “regular” churches. The trouble is, where do you draw the line? This opens the door to very subjective, arbitrary decisions as to what
is or is not a church. In a way, it’s even more oppressive than the dogmatic, rigid, orthodox types, who only recognize
churches that worship the Judeo-Christian God. At least, with the dogmatic people, you know where you stand.
In either case, however, what the government is doing is establishing religion. It is defining—dogmatically
or subjectively—what is or is not a church. And this is something the First Amendment says the government has no business
the real root of the government’s unwillingness to give tax-exempt status to alternative churches is not so
much a matter of religious prejudice as it is a desire to protect the government’s revenues! What if everyone
had his or her own church? The U.S. Treasury would be decimated! With people supporting the causes and purchasing the services
they wanted, rather than what the politicians, bureaucrats and special interests want, there would be little for
the government to do except, perhaps, operate the courts, the police, and a drastically reduced armed forces.
Naturally, those who enjoy their positions and privileges in the present system
cannot allow such a thing to happen! If it’s a choice between unfairness to “oddball” churches and self-destructing
“The System” itself, they will gladly sacrifice the few and their religious freedom.
These are not the basic alternatives, however. These are both ways of favoring churches—either some
but not others, or all churches indiscriminately. What kind of case can we make for exempting no churches? If we
tax all churches without exception, does this result in a more just system—or does it amount to the worst possible denial
of religious freedom?
If all churches are taxes, on what basis will they be assessed?
· Will it be a flat fee of
so many dollars, regardless of the size or wealth of the church? No one else is taxed in this manner, so churches shouldn’t
Will it be a flat rate of so many percent of the church’s revenues? Some states have personal
income tax set up on this basis, and there are proposals to do this with federal income tax, too. But without a basic exemption
of a certain minimum number of dollars, a flat rate tax could cripple or destroy the efforts of the smallest churches to operate
How about a progressive tax rate, that increases with the church’ revenue? This penalizes
the larger churches and discourages church growth. There would be a trend toward smaller and smaller churches, and large ones
would split up, perhaps only on paper, into smaller ones in order to avoid the higher rate—much the same way welfare
families “break up” in order to keep the income support benefits coming in when both parents are working. To keep
revenues from dropping off, the tax rate would have to be raised, which would increase the burden on the smaller churches
anyway, defeating the purpose of the progressive rate (which is hardly progressive, once churches end up at the same small
However the tax on churches was structured, it would hurt the small churches most. The power to tax is the
power to destroy, as the Supreme Court held in Marbury vs. Madison. But even if it only cripples, rather than kills, the small
churches, it is hurting their ability to use their resources in the service of their beliefs. In taxing churches, government
is unavoidably interfering with the religious freedom of the members of their congregations—and the small churches suffer
object that churches are not entitled to a free ride, that they should pay like everyone else for the services they receive.
If churches receive and pay for telephone and electrical service, for instance, why shouldn’t they also pay for the
fire and police protection and garbage collection that they receive? Shouldn’t they have to pay some sort of fee “in
lieu of taxes” for those services? Yes, but only if they want and receive those services.
Suppose a church would prefer to hire a private security company to patrol its premises and direct traffic on Sunday—or
a private garbage company to pick up its trash. Or suppose members of the congregation volunteered to provide those services
free of charge. In such a case, a church would owe nothing to the city or county. They could be required to pay only
if they asked for and got the government’s services. And they could not morally or logically regard this as government
interference in religion or violation of the separation of Church and State.
Others may point to government welfare or school or mass transit programs which do not provide a service to everyone,
but from which everyone benefits, nevertheless. Shouldn’t everyone have to pay their share of the cost of these public
goods, even if they don’t personally partake of them? For instance, isn’t it important that we have an educated
society, even if we choose not to have children—and shouldn’t we, therefore, be required to support the public
answer to that is simple. The Tennessee State Constitution be damned: if you are using the public schools, you should have
to pay for using them, but only if you are using them. And this should be in the form of a direct fee, whether its
source is the parents’ present income, loans, scholarships, or gifts. Otherwise, if you want to support the
public schools, you can; but you should also be free to instead put that money anywhere else you choose, too, whether in an
alternative school, a bowling alley, extra restaurant meals, an IRA, a trip to the Mustang Ranch, or whatever.
Yes, those children who
are properly educated in a public school do benefit society as a whole. But so do those who are properly educated
at home or in an alternative school. And if parents or alternative school teachers do not have the right to force us to support
their educational efforts, neither do public school teachers.
More generally, anything you buy with your money, if it is a free exchange between consenting individuals,
benefits society as a whole. That’s true for alternative schooling, restaurant meals, an evening of bowling or recreation
at the Mustang Ranch, or future security with an IRA. Each party to the transaction has decided that, in their scheme of personal
values, what they are giving to the other person—money, goods, or services—is not worth as much to them as what
the other person is willing to give them in exchange.
words, each party is better off than before the exchange. Society benefits because two-by-two, its members are becoming
better off, and without causing someone else to be worse off. The level of well-being of society rises higher and higher as
a result, with no infringement on the freedom of any of its individual members.
This is not
true when government tries to make some people provide others with money, goods, or services—or to forbid or discourage
such exchanges with regulations and tax laws. It stifles our normal impulses to be productive and to be generous with the
surplus of our productivity. It encourages more and more people to be unproductive and to continue living off others, who
in turn are producing less and less. The more government tightens and loosens the regulations and tax provisions which affect
us, the wider become the ups and downs of our roller-coaster economy. This is not an environment for creative, productive
people to plan long-range for their betterment and the betterment of those in society.
So, really, everything that has been said about churches applies, or should apply, to each of us as individuals, too.
We should be free to choose what services we want and to pay for them. We should be free to support programs and services
we approve of and can afford to help, and to not be forced to support others. We should be free to choose whom to deal with,
on what terms, so long as we don’t use force or fraud against them.
We’re talking about basic freedom of association, of which freedom of religion is just a subcategory.
Whether it’s your body, your labor, your property, or your money, if you are forced to use it to serve people, programs,
plans, etc., that you have not freely chosen, you are being denied the freedom of association. And when religious
ideas and values are involved, more specifically, your freedom of religion is being denied.
Nowhere is this more
obvious than in education. By the very nature of the beast, the public schools must support or promote someone’s religious
world-view, to the detriment of someone else’s. Putting the secular humanists in the driver’s seat does great
injustice to the religious fundamentalists and others who don’t want teachers delving too deeply into such topics as
sex, death, and parental authority—especially when those teachers instill values opposite to those the parents want
their children to learn. Is this any less an injustice than the child of atheist or Jewish or Unitarian
parents who had to endure propaganda twenty years ago from over-zealous Christian teachers in the public schools?
Now, if the parents
in each case were free to remove their children and their tax dollars from the public schools and put
them in a school more to their liking, that would solve their problem and restore their
religious freedom. But what about childless people and businesses who object for the same reasons to the goings-on in the
public schools? What of their religious freedom?
And, to return to the main subject, what about church congregations who do not approve of the
public schools, or the public transit system, or the public welfare system, etc.? If they are to be taxed, does this not abridge
their religious freedom? Does this not constitute interference in the practice of their belief, being forced to support things
they disapprove of on religious grounds? Does this not amount to a gaping hole in the wall of separation between Church and
State? Yes, to all three questions.
no matter which way we turn, in regard to taxes, we find that the separation of Church and State is a logical impossibility.
It can’t exist. If we exempt some churches, we trample on he religious freedom of those not
exempted. If we tax all churches, we trample on the religious freedom of those who would prefer to spend their congregation’s
money differently than the Congress or legislature or town council. In either case, great harm if not destruction results
Only if we exempt all churches—i.e.,
anything somebody wants to call a church—will government be able to avoid interfering in freedom of religion. But that,
as we have seen, would harm if not destroy the state! Many would find this a horrendous prospect. But
I, for one, would instead paraphrase Thomas Jefferson—an intellectual giant on this issue, as on so many others: faced
with the choice between a society without a healthy religious sector and society without a healthy state apparatus, I would
without hesitation choose the latter.