Speaking of tax returns, how about tax deductions?
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, following pressure from his Republican rivals for the party nomination to face President Barack Obama in the November election, released his tax records from 2010 as well as estimates for his 2011 taxes today. Romney's tax returns highlight an important issue of religious privileging in our tax code.
Included in Romney's tax filings were deductions from his adjusted gross income for contributions made to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, of which the Romney family is a long-time and prominent fixture. In 2010, Romney gave just over $1.5 million to the church. The past year, Romney contributed $2.6 million to the Church. The $4 million represents roughly 10% of Romney's total income of $42.5 million. As with many members of the LDS Church, Romney gives approximately 10 percent of his earnings to the church as a tithe.
Romney has every right as a citizen to support the work of an organization in which he believes. What should be the concern of every American-not just secular Americans-is that Romney receives a tax benefit for supporting his church. Of course, millions of other Americans receive this same benefit for contributions to religious and secular charitable organizations. The problem here lies with the special privilege and status of churches in charitable giving.
Suppose your earnings over the last two years were identical to Romney's. And let's say that you too gave away more than $4 million of your income. But suppose that, instead of donating to the LDS Church, you instead donated to American Atheists. Or the Secular Student Alliance. Or any number of any worthwhile organizations. In order for your contribution to be tax deductible, these organizations must be registered as 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations and must file paperwork with Internal Revenue Service that guarantees that they are using your (and other donors') money in a manner consistent with the legal requirements of a 501(c)(3) organization.
These organizations must disclose, through IRS Form 990, how much money they raised, how much was spent, on what they spent it, the compensation of their officers, and then make these disclosures available to the public. Religious organizations, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, are not required by the federal government to make these disclosures expressly because of their status as churches and religious groups. While secular charities and nonprofits must "open their books" in order for their supporters to receive a tax benefit from their giving, churches must, quite simply, be churches.
The Constitution protects our right to practice our religion free from government intervention up to the line that is crossed when our religious practices infringe on the liberty of others. What it does not do, however, is guarantee special standing for some religious beliefs over others (or none).
The simplest and most fair solution is this: in order for individuals to receive tax benefits for contributions to a charitable group, all groups, secular and religious, must be subjected to the same disclosure and reporting requirements. If churches and religious groups choose not to make the disclosures required by law for their supporters to receive a tax benefit for support, that is entirely within their rights under the Constitution. But it is not their right to receive special accommodations if they are unwilling to play by the same rules as everyone else.
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