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Holy Freeloading! 10 Ways Religious Groups Take from the Public Purse

Religion is big business, especially with the help of your tax dollars.

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If you want to sell your historic church later for redevelopment, don’t worry, Jefferson’s wall of separation applies. In Washington State, for example,  the Supreme Court ruled that a church could to sell to the highest bidder, even though their iconic building had been designated a landmark and the deal included a likely wrecking ball. Some knives don’t cut both ways. 

7. The public underwrites religious infrastructure. Some religious groups may be able to build a portfolio of real estate investments without having to contribute to public amenities, utilities, transportation, or policing. Many community services and assets get paid for by real estate owners through property taxes. But for a long time, houses of worship have been exempt, making them effectively subsidized by surrounding properties. In March 2013, pro-religion Arizona lawmakers  proposed to expand that exemption to all properties held by religious entities, as long as they are not producing a profit. Such a change might allow a savvy investor to sit on undeveloped or underdeveloped land without incurring the annual costs faced by other speculators. Tax exempt real estate can offer a way to invest those tithes as membership grows.  

8. International aid dollars. World Vision, a multi-national with an evangelical mission and employee statement of faith has built a vast loyal following largely by appending evangelistic priorities to US aid dollars. World Vision offers desperate people the basics: food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education—with a carefully titrated dose of Biblical Christianity. Their genius lies in the fact that most of their services are funded by Americans at large. 

Administrators and lawyers succeeded in persuading governmental granting agencies that World Vision is a non-proselytizing aid organization, while simultaneously  persuading the courts they can’t fulfill their mission with heretics among warehouse staff. In 2007, three employees sued because they were fired over their interpretation of Christianity, which was at odds with the required employee statement of faith. World Vision fought all the way to the Supreme court and won. If Harvard Business School should need a case study on how an enterprise can solicit government contracts while circumventing the Civil Rights Act and other cumbersome employment laws, this is it. 

9. Administering public health facilities. With Obamacare and technology costs driving  hospital mergers, religious healthcare corporations like Catholic Health Initiatives ($15B+ in assets) are finding that they  can secure monopoly positions in many communities or even  entire regions. This puts them in the power position when it comes to pricing services and negotiating labor contracts, which means mergers pay dividends. The Lund Report, which monitors Oregon’s healthcare system,  reports annual profits of $2 billion and counting for the Providence chain.

Like other sectors such as aid and education, healthcare offers an array of opportunities for religious enterprises to expand and improve their brand appeal with little of their own money at risk. Consider  this:

"Religious hospitals get 36% of all their revenue from Medicare [and] 12%…from Medicaid. Of the remaining 44% of funding, 31% comes from county appropriations, 30% comes from investments, and only 5% comes from charitable contributions (not necessarily religious). The percentage of church funding for church-run hospitals comes to a grand total of 0.0015 percent.

Administering health services allows a religious entity to restrict the service mix base on  their beliefs about what God wants. For example, in Catholic-run facilities, directives from the bishops  prohibit contraception and end-of-life options. Faith-related icons and outreach materials can be made available in waiting rooms. Depending on how your organization is structured, you may be able to preferentially hire members of your group and so keep the money in the family so to speak, all the while reaping the good will that comes with community service.

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