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Holy Freeloading! 10 Ways Religious Groups Suck on the Public Purse

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

By Valerie Tarico | 18 September 2013
AlterNet

Have you ever thought about starting a new religion or perhaps a hometown franchise of an old one? Perhaps you’re just looking for a career ladder in a religious enterprise that already exists. No? Maybe you should.

Religion is big business. There are lots of options (over 30,000 variants of Christianity alone), and if the scale is right it can pay really, really well. Creflo Dollar, founder of World Changers Church, has an estimated net worth of $27 million. Benny Hinn comes in at $42 million. Squeaky clean tent revival pioneer Billy Graham bankrolled around $25 million. Even Eddie Long who has been plagued by accusations of sex with underage male members of his congregation can count his bankbook in the millions.

You say you don’t have star power? No worries. Millions of ordinary ministers, priests, missionaries, religious hospital administrators and other church employees earn solid middle- or upper-middle-class incomes in the God business. The pay is good, and for most positions it doesn’t matter what race you are or what grade you happened to get in chemistry.

That said, starting or expanding a religious enterprise doesn’t come cheap, even in an established religion that transforms ordinary members into volunteer outreach staff. Christianity spends an estimated $16 billion annually on the kind of marketing-service blend traditionally called “missionary work.”

Missionary work may include disaster relief or education with recruiting in the mix. An earthquake survivor might receive a solar-powered Bible to go with his rice and beans and sutures. A Hindu child might get free schooling, pencils and paper included, along with the message that the gods his parents worship are actually demons. Among people who are less desperate, the offerings can be more nuanced and less expensive. For example, a lonely student might get offered kindness and dinner by someone who is paid to live near campus as a friendship missionary. Sometimes mention of heaven or hell is all the enticement needed, though even then there may be costs associated with print materials and distribution. Soldiers in Iraq gave out Jesus coins and a little cartoon book showing that when an IED killed a Muslim, he or she went to hell, a fate that could be averted by conversion.

The cost of rice, beans, medical supplies, pencils, swag, facilities and salaries can add up. Fortunately, some of religion’s bigger players have gotten creative in recent years. They’ve figured out how to pay for at least part of their growth on the public dime. Having taxpayers cover a portion your costs, even overhead or infrastructure, drives up your margin. It may actually make the difference between a religious enterprise that is a fiscal black hole and one that is lucrative. So, whether you’re thinking about positioning within a small religion or large, one that’s new or one that’s well established, it’s worth taking a look at these ten examples to see if there’s something you can borrow.

1. Fund your religion classes with school vouchers, tuition tax credits or capital grants. If your religion has or can open accredited private schools, public funding prospects are growing rapidly. Thirteen states created or expanded voucher programs in 2013, accelerating a trend from recent years. Vouchers allow parents to divert their children and tax dollars away from public schools and into private institutions, which then have wide religious latitude. Such a school can include classes in which children memorize sacred texts, for example, but also can infuse a religious perspective into classes as diverse as literature, history, and computer science. The opportunities aren’t limited to grade schools. In New Jersey, an Orthodox Jewish yeshiva is slated for $10.6 million in higher education grants to improve its male-only training in “Talmudic scholarship.” Mind you, the ACLU is quibbling.

To maximize your own public funding you may have to get creative. In Arizona any resident can divert a part of his state income tax to your school to fund a specific student. That means you need those students or their parents to get out and do the solicitation for you!

2. Get free facilities for after-school clubs in public facilities. Child Evangelism Fellowship recruits grade-school children in the U.S. and abroad to born-again Christianity. In 2001, they took a case all the way to the Supreme Court and won the right to use public school facilities for their afternoon clubs. They persuaded the justices that they were teaching moral values, rather like the Boy Scouts and other groups that have long had access to public facilities. But parents who have sat in on the clubs assure us that these “values” include very specific dogmas and doctrines—things like heaven, hell and even biblical justification of genocide. Last year CEF operated over 4,000 Good News Clubs in public school facilities.

3. Nudge your doctrines into public school textbooks and discussions. Texas sets textbook standards for the whole country, and if a tenacious group of Texans gets their way, you may be able to move your message directly into public school curriculum. Members of the state’s textbook review panel have recommended adding creationism to biology texts while reducing coverage of the dominant competing theory. You may think that their account of the creation story is mistaken; yours may be different. But in the long run, their long hard work to blur the boundary between science and myth helps the whole religious sector.

To make matter better, allies in the Texas Republican party proposed a platform in 2012 that prohibited schools from teaching critical thinking skills. Others have pushed to require that each high school offer “Bible as literature” electives, confident that devout teachers will know how to use the course material.

4. Support military missionaries on government salaries. Twenty to 30 years ago, evangelical Christians identified the U.S. military as a prime mission field and soldiers as potential missionaries to the world. Hundreds of evangelical and Pentecostal “endorsing” agencies began credentialing chaplains. Today, according to investigative reporter Jeff Sharlet, more than two thirds of U.S. military chaplains come from one of these two traditions. They have successfully redirected female cadets into the more time-honored roles of wife and mother, shaped entertainment and education in military academies, and cultivated a cadre of officers who support their mission. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation has resisted some of their bold attempts to build an army of Christian soldiers, but missionary chaplains continue to serve and shape America’s fighting men and women, all on the public dime. The door for more remains open.

5. Use federal disaster relief to rebuild after “acts of God.” Thanks to lobbying by religious leaders like the Catholic bishops and the Becket Fund, four U.S. senators are promoting legislation that would qualify churches, mosques, temples and synagogues for federal emergency (FEMA) funds if they get damage in natural disasters. The House of Representatives approved a similar measure early in the year. If you own or manage church property, it’s worth keeping your eye on this legislation. Your odds of having real estate damaged by a hurricane or earthquake may be low currently, but extreme weather events, like sea levels, appear to be on the rise. Should the bill pass, you might get to make a claim on a public insurance pool that lets religious entities skip out on the premiums.

6. Leverage historic preservation grants to rehab your real estate. If you’ll be making an investment in religious real estate as a base for operations or to attract members, you might want to do a little digging in the archives. Federal grants may be available for restoration and repairs if your church is deemed historically significant. Like many other aspects of public funding for religion, this boundary has shifted in recent decades. Spending tax dollars on church buildings was ruled illegal in the 1970s but acceptable by 2003.

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.

10. Provide safety net services to potential converts. Prisoners, addicts, single moms, pregnant teens, the elderly, foster kids…the possibilities are endless. President George Bush established an Office of Faith Based Initiatives, which worked to strengthen religious organizations in their ability to provide social services. In the first year, 2005, $2.2 billion in grants were awarded to religious organizations. (Barack Obama later revamped and expanded the office, appointing a cadre of religious leaders as advisors and putting his personal spiritual guide, Joshua DuBois, at the helm.)

The savvy expansion-minded religious entrepreneur will notice that people who are the target of safety net services often are the very same people who make prime candidates for conversion. In both cases they fit the bill because the fabric of their lives has frayed and they are in need of help. From a business standpoint such a focus may seem less than ideal, but remember this: poor, desperate people are the ones who put those celebrity evangelists in their mansions.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light. She is also the founder of WisdomCommons.org.

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