Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Washington, D.C., asking that churches and other houses of worship be allowed the same access to federal Hurricane Harvey aid that other nonprofits are.
“Churches have opened their doors to feed, shelter, comfort and rebuild their communities — even hosting FEMA operations in the process — but this policy has made those very same churches ineligible for assistance because their primary use is, by nature, religious,” Abbott and Paxton wrote.
Days before Abbott and Paxton sent the letter, three Texas churches damaged by Hurricane Harvey sued the Federal Emergency Management Agency, demanding access to disaster relief money they say nonreligious nonprofits are able to get, according to The Washington Times.
Abbott and others make a compelling argument. Many local churches, some severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey, did step in to help hundreds of residents in Galveston County. In many cases, the churches were the first to respond and were on the front lines of relief and recovery efforts.
But it’s also very true that churches are exempt from taxes, a long-standing arrangement meant to protect religious freedom and to curb the temptation of government to establish an official religion.
In 2013, the Washington Post began raising the issue of whether churches should pay taxes and pointed out: “When people donate to religious groups, it’s tax-deductible. Churches don’t pay property taxes on their land or buildings. When they buy stuff, they don’t pay sales taxes. When they sell stuff at a profit, they don’t pay capital gains tax.
“If they spend less than they take in, they don’t pay corporate income taxes. Priests, ministers, rabbis and the like get ‘parsonage exemptions’ that let them deduct mortgage payments, rent and other living expenses when they’re doing their income taxes. They also are the only group allowed to opt out of Social Security taxes (and benefits).”
Should churches, which don’t pay taxes, benefit from a program supported by taxpayers?
Under current U.S. law, FEMA cannot give money to churches for repairs, reconstruction or replacement of facilities damaged by a storm.
Consider that apartments and other such income-producing properties that do pay taxes also don’t qualify for FEMA assistance because they aren’t primary residences.
Many landlords instead rely on low-interest Small Business Administration disaster loans. It’s a simple question of fairness, first and foremost.
Churches do qualify for some forms of aid, including recovery loans from the SBA. What they can’t receive are grants, which are given with the expectation that the money will be paid back.
But there are other questions that beg answering as politicians champion the idea churches should receive FEMA help: Which churches? All churches? All denominations? Will it apply to synagogues, mosques? It would have to.
And what about nontraditional places of worship? It’s a slippery slope when you consider that just about any group could call itself a church.
The government would then be in a precarious position of deciding just what qualifies as a real church as it decides to dole out FEMA dollars.
Churches, mosques and synagogues are membership organizations. What’s to stop them from using federal dollars to help only who they see fit or to proselytize those they help?
The contributions churches have made in Harvey relief are worthy of praise and shouldn’t be dismissed. But it’s a dangerous thing to weaken and erode foundations of religious liberty and church-state separation.
Churches are tax-exempt because the founding fathers believed government should have no authority over religion, which is an important principle.
We also shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that in the United States, tax exemptions for churches are largely based on the rationale that those organizations provide social benefits. Churches on one hand can’t argue they should enjoy tax exemptions because they provide a social service and then argue they should get taxpayer aid because they provide social services.
Churches should do good things because they should do good things. We should remember what the Bible says about being rewarded for good deeds in heaven and not on Earth. The takeaway being you can’t have both your tax exemption and your FEMA help.
There’s another relevant adage here: As the government gives, so too does the government take away.
Churches in this case should be careful what they pray for.
• Laura Elder