Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, meaning love of mankind. Today, charity usually refers to a tax-exempt organization that performs a public service. They may be private or public foundations that make grants to fund activities promoting the general welfare.

Income and property taxes usually allow the exemption of charitable and religious organizations. The justification recognizes the power to tax is the power to control. If government could tax a church, it could potentially violate the First Amendment protection of religious freedom.

The tax exemption for sectarian foundations may promote the public good. For example, The Ford Foundation promotes social justice, and its mission includes reducing poverty and injustice. Grants are made by an internal board that is not subject to public scrutiny.

The Clinton Foundation solicits “strategic partners” to fund programs that “create economic opportunity, improve public health, and inspire civic engagement and service.” Again, a privately named board of governors and grant reviewers are in charge.

Conservative groups, such as those controlled by the Koch Brothers, fund various tax-exempt organizations to affect policy choices. The consequences of such activities may be as specific as moving the boundaries of renewable fuel sources such as wind farms. Or they can support public education programs to affect policies such as efforts to promote or oppose climate change amelioration.

The Catholic Diocese of Galveston and Houston used tax-exempt money to restore St. Mary’s Cathedral that was situated on tax-exempt land. The Moody Foundation used exempt money to build a gymnasium for a parochial school, as well as to restore historic buildings.

In each case international, national or local foundations have provided a mechanism for individuals and organizations to affect public policy. Tax-exempt foundations can address issues that provoke public debate and concerns. Depending on one’s point of view this may be a good or bad exercise of power.

Normally, public policy is set and reviewed by government officials directly responsible to democratically elected individuals. However, when foundations fund a program they employ their prerogative to affect public policy without review by voters.

But a corollary of this prerogative is that the policies of democratically elected officials may be circumvented through the foundation grant mechanism. They are not subject to democratic review. Well-meaning groups can be quite local but have unintended consequences.

For example, monies used to restore churches implicitly undermine the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. A public review by an elected representative may have chosen to use the money for an alternative public good.

The public accountability of tax-exempt organizations is critical to the functioning of a democratic republic. This can be enhanced by subjecting them to the same open meetings rules that apply to government agencies.

To assure the representation of the public interest, democratically elected bodies such as city councils, legislatures and Congress should appoint one or more members of the directorate of tax-exempt foundations.

These simple requirements, if adopted, would assure that foundations continue to promote the public good.

Dan Freeman is an occasional columnist for The Daily News.

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(7) comments

Carlos Ponce

"monies used to restore churches implicitly undermine the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment." No, Dan, it does not. What does the "Establishment Clause" state? "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...." Clearly this means the United States Congress cannot name a church as The Church of the United States. This did not happen.

Read the Supreme Court decision in Emerson v. Board of Education (1947). HELD: The statute and resolution did not violate the provision of the First Amendment (made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment) prohibiting any “law respecting an establishment of religion.” The case involved providing transportation for parochial students.

In Mitchell v. Helms 2000 SCOTUS ruled state aid could be granted to parochial schools.

In Trinity Lutheran Church v. Comer (2017), SCOTUS ruled the State of Missouri violated the Constitution when it excluded the Trinity Lutheran Church day care center in Columbia, Missouri, from receiving state funds for playground resurfacing.

https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-577_khlp.pdf

Dan before you post something like "monies used to restore churches implicitly undermine the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment" I suggest you re-read the ACTUAL Amendment and any Supreme Court Case that supports or denies your premise.

Bailey Jones

I use the website "Charity Navigator" which evaluates charities based on factors such as financial transparency, overhead, executive pay, etc. It's a simple way to make sure that your charity dollars are going toward those you intend and not into someone's pockets.

Gary Scoggin

“ To assure the representation of the public interest, democratically elected bodies such as city councils, legislatures and Congress should appoint one or more members of the directorate of tax-exempt foundations.”. Dan, I’m sorry to say this but that’s a really silly idea both in concept and in application.

Michael Jozwiak

Changes from the Trump tax reforms severely limited the possibility of deductions from your income tax for charitable deductions. This hit all charities hard. With churches making millions, they should not be tax exempt. Religious groups should at least pay taxes on the properties they own.

Carlos Ponce

In McCullough v. Madison -1919 Justice Marshall ruled "the power to tax involves the power to destroy". Do you really want to give taxing entities that power over religious groups?

Bailey Jones

I think you meant McCulloch v. Maryland, and I think you meant 1819.

"Do you really want to give taxing entities that power over religious groups?" Why yes. Yes, I do. Thanks for asking. According to a study by Georgetown University, religion in the United States is worth $1.2 trillion a year, giving it a higher value than the combined revenues of the top 10 technology companies in the US, including Apple, Amazon and Google. (The analysis did not take into account the value of financial or physical assets held by religious groups nor the negative impacts of religious organizations, such as the abuse of children by clergy, fraud, and the use of religion for the promotion of hatred and violent extremism.)

Render unto Caesar, etc.

Carlos Ponce

I stand corrected McCulloch v. Maryland 1819. I was in a hurry and typed incorrectly. But I don't think any court would allow it considering the ramifications.And children are abused by other than clergy: scout masters, teachers but mostly by relatives. I recommend criminal persecution. Taxing? No.

"promotion of hatred" - Depends on your definition of hatred. Not allowing marriage ceremonies because of Biblical teachings is not hatred. They can marry elsewhere Using Sharia Law to kill, now that's hatred.

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