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No Surprise Here: Study Indicates Churches Benefits to Their Community Far Outweigh the Cost of Their Tax Exemption

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

If we are right about the potential for a future clash over churches tax free status, you will want to be prepared for the battle with good information regarding the economic benefits churches bring to their community. Fortunately, such a study has already been prepared and additional such research is expected to be completed soon. Richard Ostling at the Get Religion blog posted the following article which you should familiarize yourself with.

Ostling reviews the work of Ram Cnaan of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice on the subject of the value of a church in a community versus the cost of lost tax revenue due to its tax free status. In his initial study, Ram and his team examined twelve Philadelphia area houses of worship (10 protestant, 1 Catholic and 1 Jewish) on 40 separate factors. The study determined that on average, each house of worship provided $4.23 million in economic contribution to its community for a total of over $51 million. The authors believe this far exceeds the lost tax revenues as a result of the churches tax free status. Further, they contend the study did not pick up all the positive contributions these houses of worship made to their communities, such as lower crime rates, higher housing values, leadership development, or personal generosity extended by congregants to their neighbors.

Providing hope for the retention of the preferred church tax status and perhaps the housing allowance as well, Gistling optimistically concludes “… strict secularists and church-state separationists may also object that even indirect aid via tax exemption violates the U.S. Constitution’s ban on an “establishment of religion.” But the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that contention by 8-1 in the 1970 “Walz v. Tax Commission of the City of New York” decision. The lone dissenter, liberal Justice William Douglas, insisted that “government may not provide or finance worship.” However, the high court majority ruled that exemptions for religious buildings have existed since Colonial days without “establishment” problems, that indirect benefits are different from direct government payments that would be illegal, and that houses of worship get no special favors denied to other non-profit community organizations. Significantly, the court stated that all types of non-profits, including religious ones, provide diversity and “beneficial and stabilizing influences in community life” that make exemption “useful, desirable, and in the public interest.”

Hopefully, this common sense argument from the US Supreme Court in 1970 will still win the day in 2013! Even if it does not, however, there should be no doubt the work of the church will go on unabated as it has since the first century. While the church benefits from its tax advantaged position, it does not rely upon them. It is the good hearts of faithful believers who ultimately provide for the needs of the church and we have no doubt Christians will stand with their pastors and their fellow believers should these benefits be reduced or eliminated by an increasingly hostile culture.