Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Church and Taxes

In his column today published by the Establishment, Fr. Joaquin Bernas, S.J. writes that "...the constitutional exemption (from payment of taxes) of churches covers only property used exclusively, actually and directly for religious purposes. It does not cover property not so used. Nor does it cover income from legitimate business operations of churches..." Full article here.

The power to tax includes the power to destroy. This is the logic that emboldens the government to impose high taxes on liquor and tobacco. Of course, the clerics were jesuitic enough to maneuver the constitutional provision exempting religious property from taxation. And Fr. Bernas claims that the " exemptions for religious property are given in order to ensure religious liberty..." This means that the government will not be able to destroy the church through the power of taxation.

This leads me to the point: what about religions that advocate the destruction of government? Does this mean the government will be helpless to tax the same entities which advocate its overthrow?

I have an uncle who swears that his religion is San Miguel Beer and Philip Morris. He is a dutiful believer, and in fact, he worships them everyday. Can he invoke the constitutional provision that Fr. Bernas explained?

It's really very tricky. Nobody regulates churches. That would be unconstitutional, wouldn't it? Nobody even has a legal definition of a church. If I put up a church of my own -- say the "Sun Tzu Church of War" -- does that mean all my properties, if any, are exempt from tax? The answer is Y - E - S. Indeed, by the very nature of religious freedom, any legal challenge to my Sun Tzu Church of War is likely to be repelled. For the state has no business meddling with the affairs of the spirit, it has no choice but to tolerate it and give it tax exemptions.

Time was a person could be executed for believing that the world is round. Our forefathers have made a very significant achievement in the recognition of religious freedom and the separation of church and state. It is significant enough as to make the state helpless to tax church properties in perpetuity.

Well, the wealth witch hunt is on. Whoever brandishes wealth is suspect. Not even the church can escape from the heat. This is the reason why the church itself had to make an announcement to clarify its tax exempt privileges. But methinks, the church has done its homework (what's this centuries-old church and state relationship for?).And the government should poke it nose elsewhere -- unless, of course, we are ready to challenge the logic of exempting religions from taxes. And by doing so, are we regressing to the days when religious freedom was a dream?

By the way, you might be wondering, are there any people who will risk eternal damnation in order to save taxes? Ha -- you might be surprised, but my answer is privileged.

(second revision)

Read the Sassy Lawyer's reaction here.

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