A megachurch cost-benefit analysis

megachurchThe business section of The New York Times had another story in its series on how religious institutions in America benefit from government accommodations. On its face, the series takes the approach that the benefits gained by these institutions are a detriment to the rest of society because of the government accommodations. That perspective, at least in this story, leaves the authors reaching for a detriment that I am not entirely convinced is there.

Overall, this article on big churches using their influence and size to spur local economic development is very informative. A great feature shows where these big churches are concentrated. The article notes that this development challenges the traditional view that churches "drain a town financially by generating lower-paid jobs, taking land off the property-tax rolls and increasing traffic." This is a good thing, the Times seems to suggest. Yet there has to be a negative:

But the entrepreneurial activities of churches pose questions for their communities that do not arise with secular development.

These enterprises, whose sponsoring churches benefit from a variety of tax breaks and regulatory exemptions given to religious organizations in this country, sometimes provoke complaints from for-profit businesses with which they compete -- as ChangePoint's new sports center has in Anchorage.

Mixed-use projects, like shopping centers that also include church buildings, can make it difficult to determine what constitutes tax-exempt ministry work, which is granted exemptions from property and unemployment taxes, and what is taxable commerce.

And when these ventures succeed -- when local amenities like shops, sports centers, theaters and clinics are all provided in church-run settings and employ mostly church members -- people of other faiths may feel shut out of a significant part of a town's life, some religion scholars said.

Two big "buts" come up a lot in this story. The first "but" regarding the tax assessor's office is an overblown concern. The gist of the problem is that tax assessors have trouble determining what part of the property is taxable. All I have to say about that, as one who recently wrote a massive paper on property-tax exemptions granted to multi-use hospitals, is that these tricky situations can be figured out. This is why we have laws, courts and lawyers.

Churches are not the only groups that raise these complex tax issues. Hospitals, all sorts of charitable organizations and even health clubs are all trying to take advantage of a property tax exception most state constitutions carry that allows exempts certain organizations from taxation. Frequently, legislatures pass such exemptions on the grounds that the benefit provided by the charitable organizations makes up for the lack of tax revenue.

Once you get beyond the sob story from the tax assessment office -- "What's a poor tax assessor to do?" -- the story raises some pretty good issues about inclusion and exclusion of people of other faiths. Here's a segment on First Assembly of God Church near Charlotte, N.C.:

Another contribution the church makes to the city is a free daylong celebration it holds on Independence Day, complete with fireworks.

[City manager W. Brian] Hiatt said no one seemed to find it awkward for a church to conduct the community's celebration marking the birth of a country committed to separation of church and state.

"It was a very positive event," he said.

Mr. [Doug] Rieder, the church business manager, paused when asked whether people of other faiths would have felt comfortable at the event.

"We try not to discriminate in doing community service," he said. "There are Muslims and other non-Christians here, of course. And we do want to convert them, no doubt about it -- that's our mission. We don't discriminate, but we do evangelize."

The same quandary confronts Pastor [Karl] Clauson in Anchorage. "There is nothing inherently alienating about what we're doing economically," he said. "An Orthodox Jewish youngster or a conservative Muslim child encountering our programs would find zero intimidation."

Nor does he want his community to become divided along religious lines, he said. But at the same time, "we definitely want to use these efforts as an open door to the entity that we feel is the author and creator of abundant life -- Jesus."

He added, "It's a tough balancing act."

I think the overall strength of this story, excepting the great emphasis on the poor tax assessor, is that it takes a national perspective and looks at historical precedents. Community involvement by churches is nothing new, and neither is government permissiveness or encouragement. Another perspective on this story could be why this type of church work went away in the first place.

Photo: The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, Calif., from Wikimedia Commons.

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