Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Taxing churches in Auckland

A kerfuffle has broken out in Auckland over whether churches should have to pay rates (similar to property taxes in the USA) on property that’s not used for religious purposes. Auckland Council backed down and will put off any increases until next year. The argument from churches seems to be that everything they do is a social good, so they should pay no rates on any of their property. That’s absurd. The problem with the proposal is that it doesn’t go far enough.

There’s been a long history of giving churches exemptions from rates because once upon a time most people were members of churches. Whether that was ever reasonable or not, as New Zealand has become more and more secular, the special privilege given to churches has become more and more absurd. But there are two separate issues with property here: First, there’s property that churches use for religious purposes (ceremonies of various sorts, but also, potentially, religious education, etc.). The other kind is property not used for religious purposes, which can include associated building that they use for charitable programmes. It’s this second one that the fight is over.

Churches doing charitable work are laudable, but there’s no logical reason to give them any special privileges that other charities may not get. No one could seriously argue that the charitable work they do is inherently better than work charitable work done secular organisations. Being a religious organisation doesn’t make them better—doing a better job does.

Another problem is that not all churches are the same. While some do serve all in need, without regard to the person’s religious beliefs—or lack of any—others do not. Some churches see their charitable work as a means to recruit new members and followers, whether directly or more indirectly, by surrounding the person with their particular brand of religion. Secular groups don’t do that, something that makes them “less” in the eyes of some churches.

I am not arguing that churches should not get ANY financial consideration for the property they use for non-religious purposes, but, rather, that treating churches differently from all other non-profit charities makes no sense whatsoever. Churches should get the same tax breaks that all other charities get—no more, and no less. All bona fide charities should be treated the same, and fake charities shouldn’t be able to ride along on the good name of real ones just because they call themselves a church.

But that leaves the big elephant in the room: Why shouldn’t churches pay rates on property used for religious purposes? What is so special about religion, as opposed to ALL other community activities, that it should get special rights? Religious observance is important to the adherents, and that can provide a social good for the rest of us because of greater happiness and sense of belonging for the adherents. But there are plenty of other ways to foster such connections, and when Councils are struggling to maintain existing infrastructure, let alone build for the future, why should ratepayers give special subsidies to religious people?

Instead, churches should pay the same taxes as all non-profit charitable organisations—no more, and no less. It’s not society’s concern what lawful purposes the non-profit group is using the property for, just that they’re a bona fide charity. Many religious adherents may feel aggrieved by this change, and they may even think it’s unfair—but the reality is that it’s making it fair for everyone.

It seems to me that tax policy should be agnostic, literally and figuratively, and based on what’s fair for everyone. It should be based on treating people equally, not giving special privileges to only those who hold religious beliefs, without giving equal breaks to similar non-profit charities. I know that many religious people will not agree, and they will argue that religion ought to hold a special place in society. I disagree. We should be fair to everyone, not just those who claim a place of privilege.

Auckland Council’s introduction of the new rating system for church property used for non-religious purposes does appear to have been badly done, but the overall intent is sound and necessary. I hope that the politicians don’t insert themselves into the issue for whatever reason, personal or political. We all deserve an honest and fair system and path for getting there.

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