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Milt Hankins: This large number of US landowners contributes no taxes

Jun. 21, 2013 @ 12:06 AM

Local, state and federal tax burdens would be lighter if real property values were assessed on the largest group of property owners in every community, town and city in America.

You think they already are? I say, "No. They are not!" For several groups of prime property owners in all of these civic entities pay absolutely no property taxes whatsoever. No local or state property taxes. These landholders even claim their tax-free status extends to their schools, recreational areas, parsonages and parking lots. Now it is obvious that I am referring to the churches.

In our small town, six major church groups own prime, main street properties -- some taking up nearly a whole block -- but nary a cent do they pay for city or county real estate taxes. Ordinary citizens, like you and me, pay ridiculously high real estate fees, not to mention personal property and income taxes, to support public schools, floodwalls, public recreational facilities, maintenance of infrastructure and a host of other civic enterprises.

We pay taxes which support schools even if we have no children in school. We pay for floodwalls even if our property is neither in a flood zone nor endangered by high water. Let's face it, most of us are taxed to the max! But churches, which benefit from all of the things for which we pay taxes, pay no taxes. To beat it all, some churches have the audacity to fence off their parking lots, allowing them (upon penalty of towing) to be used only by their members during their times of worship.

It takes a whole page of small print in The Herald-Dispatch weekly to list local churches and their times of services in Huntington alone. The same applies in Ashland, and I would think it is true in similar-sized communities around the country. This represents a significant amount of untaxed real estate.

Why? Surely there is a reason, and I suppose it has something to do with the separation of church and state, but I'm not sure that makes sense these days. Even Jesus declared, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesars and unto God the things that are God's." Shouldn't churches pay their fair share?

I recall, when I was a pastor, that almost all of the churches I served had tidy sums saved up for building projects, maintenance, repairs, annuities, monies received from wills and trusts, and substantial designated funds. Without exception they gave the impression that they were on the brink of bankruptcy.

We pay hefty real estate taxes. Many of us find money in our budgets for the churches. It seems to me that most churches struggle only when asked for extra dollars out of their largesse for charitable purposes.

I'm fairly certain I'm raising a niggling question that has weighed upon the minds of many. Most of us have not dared bring it up for general discussion. I understand why.

I think churches should start paying their fair share.

Milt Hankins of Ashland, Ky., is a retired minister, theologian and freelance writer.

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