Why Do Religious Groups Get Your Tax Money to Preach and Discriminate?

Faith-based organizations find many ways to game the system to their advantage.

Photo Credit: ankiro/Shutterstock.com

It’s not new for federal and state governments to issue tax breaks and incentives to religious organizations. In fact, George W. Bush and his famous “faith based initiatives” program gave certain religious organizations tax breaks if they performed non-religious duties, followed employment laws, and offered a service not based on a recipient’s religious beliefs.

So, if your religious organization feeds the homeless, does not proselytize to those receiving its services and does not discriminate against employees who do not share the same religious beliefs as the organization, the government may give it a tax incentive for its services.

Unfortunately, this has not always worked out as planned, and neither the Bush nor the Obama administration has taken action regarding the many claims of proselytizing and employee discrimination. Organizations continue to take advantage of both federal and state incentives and often do so while holding those who receive their services and those who work with them to a religious test, or force them to sit through sermons of some kind before offering them the benefits.

One continued offender is Ken Ham’s Creation Museum, a museum that is run by Ham’s evangelical apologist organization Answers in Genesis.

In 2011, Kentucky awarded the museum $43 million in tax credits for an expansion project called the Ark Encounter, an amusement park focusing on the legend of Noah’s Ark. However, this $43 million tax break was not enough for the museum, which has yet to break ground on the new exhibit. It has now applied for an $18 million tax incentive from Kentucky Tourism Development Finance Authority.

According to the Louisville paper, the Courier-Journal:

Three years ago, the group won approval of incentives for its entire $172.5 million project, but because of funding problems it withdrew that application and is seeking approval for a $73 million first phase of the biblical theme park.

Now the museum claims it is ready to break if it can get the new $18 million incentive, the Courier Journal reports:

Ark Encounter is applying to participate in a program that allows eligible tourism attractions a rebate of 25 percent of the sales tax they collect on admission tickets, souvenirs, food and other things over ten years. For this application the rebates would be as much as $18.25 million.

Yet the museum has never provided sufficient proof that it is a tourist attraction of value to the state, or even a museum at all; it has not been accepted by the American Alliance of Museums and scientists have long argued the museum is nothing more than religious propaganda.

The purpose of the museum is clearly to proselytize to its visitors and show them the evangelical explanation for life on Earth as portrayed in the Bible. The Ark Encounter is no different. The intent is to bring in guests and preach to them about a biblical fable with the hope of persuading visitors of its truth.

This violates all church and state separation. No tax dollars should ever go to an organization that’s not setting out to help or offer a service to visitors, but instead has a clear goal of converting its visitors. Actual museums offer culture and education to their visitors; the Creation Museum offers neither.

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has said it will sue the state if the incentives are granted.

“It’s a religiously themed project with potentially evangelical overtones, and therefore it would erode the separation of church and state for it to receive any money from the taxpayers,” said Sarah Jones, spokeswoman for the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The Creation Museum is not the first organization to come under fire for such use of tax incentives.

Earlier this year the Salvation Army, which is a registered evangelical church, entered a settlement over a 2009 case in which 19 plaintiffs made up of former employees sued the organization for wrongful termination after the religious beliefs of the employees were brought into question.

One employee, Anne Lown, who is Jewish, brought up concerns to her manager of the organization's practice of proselytizing to those who come to the organization's soup kitchen for a meal. She claims she was fired for raising these concerns. She has since contacted the New York Civil Liberties Union and discussed the organization’s hiring process, which she says includes questions about applicants' religious beliefs. She also says employees’ religious beliefs were often brought into question by management and people were fired over them.

Lown told the New York Times: “We were publicly funded, we were providing services on contract with New York City and state, and they were really imposing a religious test.”

The NYCLU has since filed a lawsuit in a New York court.

Because the organization received federal funding under Bush’s faith-based initiative, both inquiring about employees’ religious beliefs and firing people over them are illegal. Also, the allegations that the organization preached to those seeking help is a violation of the law.

In 2010, the Salvation Army settled a suit regarding proselytizing while working under public contract, but the settlement did not address the workplace discrimination and the NYCLU pushed that suit forward.

The latest settlement will pay two of the employees $450,000 and the organization can no longer hold employees to a religious test if the employees are working as part of any job that is under public contract.

While religious organizations are one problem, churches could be an even bigger problem. Churches do not pay taxes, and in turn, they are not allowed to have political influence. A church cannot take a public stand on laws, it cannot donate to or endorse politicians, and it cannot campaign from the pulpit.

In exchange for not being able to receive any federal funding, churches collectively save on nearly $71 billion a year in taxes. (Imagine what could be done in the U.S. with that kind of tax influx.) Yet this has not stopped churches from doing the very things they are barred from doing. In 2008, the Mormon Church spent nearly a million dollars to fund California Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage in the state.

Over 1,600 preachers around the country took part in Pulpit Freedom Sunday, which had the preachers campaigning from the pulpit to overturn Internal Revenue Service restrictions on their political involvement. This is a clear violation of their 501(3)(c) status.

On July 17, the IRS settled a lawsuit with the Freedom From Religion Foundation which sued the IRS for not taking action against these churches. The IRS agreed and considers the case closed; however, it is worth noting the timing of its decision.

Because of the ongoing IRS scandal — in which some contend that the agency selected political groups applying for tax-exempt status for intensive scrutiny based on their names or political themes — the IRS actually has a moratorium placed on it when it comes to auditing 501(3)(c) organizations.

So while the IRS says it will enforce churches' violations of the law, it simply cannot.

With no government oversight, these organizations are enjoying billions of dollars in tax breaks while refusing to play by the very rules that allow those tax breaks to exist.

If churches and religious organizations want to receive federal breaks or funds, they must follow the rules and end discrimination and proselytizing. If Ken Ham wants his $18 million tax break, he must ditch the religious aspect of his museum, and not lie about what is being sold there. If the Salvation Army doesn’t want non-Christians among its employee ranks, it should not accept a dime from the government. And if churches want to become active in politics, they must incorporate themselves and pay taxes like everyone else.

It’s time for these tax incentives to be revisited. If the GOP want a real IRS tax scandal, this is the one, and it's costing the taxpayers in the country billions of dollars each year.

Dan Arel is the author of Parenting Without God and blogs at Danthropology. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.