Editorial: Tax-free status should be hard-won

Last modified: 8/2/2015 11:16:40 PM
Last month in Indiana, a church devoted to smoking dope, the First Church of Cannabis, won tax-exempt status from the IRS. In 2010, the Church of the IV Majesties, a Satanist group, did the same. So why was the Church of the Sword, which holds its services in a brew pub on Fisherville Road in Concord, denied a property tax exemption by the town of Westmoreland, where its alleged parsonage is located? Because, the Cheshire County Superior Court ruled, the organization, founded by Free State party members and fellow libertarians, was not a church but a social club.

The church, whose services include faux battles with foam swords, plans to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court and in federal court, but the town and the lower court got it right. The church, whose practices mimic and mock those of traditional religions, is an amusing, if sophomoric, comment on organized religion but not a church under IRS rules.

Those rules, which put the nation’s tax collectors in the awkward position of deciding what is and is not a legitimate religion or belief system, are elastic. Many organizations of questionable purpose slip through, loopholes that libertarians, among others, have long sought to exploit nationally.

At least three other efforts by churches formed by so-called liberty activists to win tax exemptions are under way in New Hampshire.

Tax assessors, select boards and others empowered to grant exemptions should give such requests the utmost scrutiny. What tax-exempt organizations don’t pay must be made up by other taxpayers, including some who are vehemently opposed to the principles or practices of the exempt group.

Winning tax-free status has, in our view, been too easy for too long. “Obtaining 501 (c)(3) Recognition Has Never Been Easier” an organization of self-described religious proponents says on a website that will, for a sum not disclosed on the website, guide customers through the process.

Last month, a study cited by the Religion News Service valued the tax breaks given churches at the city, state and federal level at $71 billion per year.

In Concord, where 26 percent of all property isn’t taxed, scores of properties are exempt on religious grounds. The city is fastidious about verifying that exemptions – religious, charitable and educational – are deserved, and it’s prevailed in court when denials are challenged. That’s as it should be.

The Constitution makes no mention of a right to tax exemptions on religious grounds and indeed, James Madison, arguably the driving force behind the document, opposed them, according to some scholars. But the power to tax does include the power to destroy at the expense of religious liberty. So there has always been debate, and tension, over which better ensures separation of church and state and protects First Amendment freedoms: exemptions for churches or taxation of all equally with religious status irrelevant.

Exemptions for religious purposes, more than exemptions for charitable or educational purposes, raise another problem. As the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said in dissent 40 years ago: “If believers are entitled to public financial support, so are nonbelievers. A believer and nonbeliever under the present law are treated differently because of the articles of faith,” a situation Douglas deemed unconstitutional.

New Hampshire, according to a Gallup poll taken last year, is the second least-religious state in the nation after Vermont. That means many property owners are paying higher taxes to support organizations whose goals and beliefs they may not share. It also means that requests to be relieved of the responsibility to pay taxes should always be looked upon with narrowed eyes.

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